MOVIE REVIEW: Bridge of Spies



Just over a year ago in this website's review of David Fincher's "Gone Girl," Steven Spielberg was referenced as being on an exclusive short list of five active film directors who could do no wrong in this writer's eyes.  Fincher and Spielberg were joined by Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and Christopher Nolan.  Those five are beyond reliable and succeed in seemingly everything they touch.  They simply operate on another level than everyone else.  Spielberg is, by far, the most popular, and successful of those gentlemen.  

Known for his numerous transcendent cinematic classics, even a less-than-masterwork effort from Steven Spielberg is better than the overwhelming majority of wide releases in any year.  Three years after "Lincoln" and four years after "War Horse," two legitimate landmarks in this critic's eyes, Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies" counts as exactly that kind of perfectly acceptable compromise.  As an expertly crafted historical drama of intrigue and high character, there's not a thing wrong with it, but not everything Spielberg puts out can be a timeless instant classic.

Collaborating for the fourth time with Spielberg, two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks is front-and-center as attorney James B. Donovan, a successful Brooklyn insurance liability lawyer propelled into the public eye at the height of the Cold War.  His unenviable task is to provide the criminal defense of captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (three-time Tony Award-winning stage actor Mark Rylance).  Abel was apprehended in the famous "Hollow Nickel Case," craftily reenacted in the film's opening scene, right there in Brooklyn Heights in 1957.  Overwhelming public opinion and a Red-hating federal judge (veteran character actor Dakin Matthews), would just as soon skip the trial and hang Abel old-school, kangaroo court-style for all to see as a message to world of how this country should treat traitors, spies, and communists.  

Through a prudent defense of prisoner equality and the search rights afforded by the 4th Amendment, Donovan argues Abel's case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  His work on the case spares Abel the death penalty.  Thinking like the insurance man he is and seeing the big picture, Donovan recommends that Abel could be a useful bargaining chip of diplomacy and clemency to prevent tensions and war should any U.S. soldier or spy face the same fate as Abel.  Three years later, Donovan's conjecture comes true during the high-profile 1960 U-2 incident where American CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell of "Whiplash") is captured after bailing out at 70,000 feet on a failed reconnaissance mission.  Pulled back into dangerous territory and dispatched to the newly-walled city of Berlin, Donovan secretly works to broker a hardball deal of legal gamesmanship to trade Powers for Abel with the enemy.

Equally as automatic and reliable as the director himself is everything Tom Hanks puts his effort into on-screen.  Like Spielberg in this genre of historical drama, Hanks can play this type of likable hero and family man with his eyes closed.  His wit suits the real-life stalwart lawyer worthy of remembered history.  The ensemble behind Hanks is reliable but unexceptional.  The best of the bunch underneath the headliner is Mark Rylance's introverted work to play Abel with enough risky sympathy to make this uneasy and shady diplomatic deal palatable.    

Proper to the skill level of Spielberg's regular team of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, not a hair, camera angle, moment, or beam of light is out of place. For the first time in 30 years (since 1985's "A Color Purple"), someone other than legendary composer John Williams scores a Steven Spielberg picture.  Frequent Sam Mendes colleague and 12-time Academy Award nominee Thomas Newman ("American Beauty," "Skyfall") attempts to fill those legendary shoes with his elegant lightness.  Filmed authentically right in Brooklyn and Berlin, "Bridge of Spies" has the tangible historical feel and accuracy you would expect in a Spielberg production.  

Also expected and present is the Spielbergian balance of steely dramatic tension with the swooning heartstrings of heart and patriotism.  With a factual story in play, Spielberg paints his own politics of optimism on top of screenwriter Matt Charman's investigative treatment of events.  In a lightly advertised new collaboration for Spielberg, the Academy Award-winning sibling team of Ethan and Joel Coen put the polish on Charman's work and their quaint and cheeky humor bubbles pleasantly to the surface when necessary.  This is the second year in a row the Coen brothers have put their rub on a grim history after last year's "Unbroken" for Angelina Jolie.  Their presence is welcome.

Sewn with care to document an unopened storybook file on little-remembered Cold War heroics and theatrics, "Bridge of Spies" is the kind of historical drama that Steven Spielberg can make in his sleep.  In a way, this is Spielberg's throwback answer to "Argo," three years after Ben Affleck's film swept the top Oscars away from Spielberg's own "Lincoln."  This isn't quite Spielberg going full "Annie Get Your Gun" with a dimissive "anything you can do, I can do better" scoff.  He doesn't need that one-upmanship for his ego.  "Bridge of Spies" is more a reminder that the master is still capable of making a winner with ease.  

The complete result is safe and on message.  Is "Bridge of Spies" too safe and too easy?  Probably yes.  There was indeed room here in the film's 141 minutes of history spanning five years to pass the baton to someone other than Hanks.  It's a movie that begs for you to do the homework afterwards to seek out the real story.  With a star of his magnitude present, there was only room for one main protagonist.  There could have been, and maybe should have been, two.  James Donovan's co-negotiator on the CIA, Milan Miskovsky, was omitted from this cinematic history lesson.  History shows that Miskovsky was just as crucial as Donovan to the prisoner exchange.

As good as Hanks always is, one has to wonder how much better and more generous "Bridge of Spies" would be with a younger partner (Miskovsky was ten years younger than Donovan) emerging in the second and third acts.  For an American of Czech descent with CIA-worthy panache, might we suggest fellow Oscar winner Adrien Brody, himself of Czech ancestry, in that spot?  Imagine that clever pairing in the Coen brothers' linguistic hands.  Even with Hanks as a justifiable ball hog, the entertainment and interest value of the film is not reduced.  "Bridge of Spies" is rightly uplifting and there's nothing wrong with that.  So it's easy.  At least it's good.  

LESSON #1: THE CONSTITUTION IS THE RULE BOOK THAT SEPARATES US FROM OUR ENEMIES-- The court of public opinion and the actual court of law are two decidedly different landscapes.  The public will assume guilt and sentence crimes in a heartbeat while the court has rules and procedures that must be followed to seek proper justice.  The binding judicial rules and rights of our democracy, as laid out by the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights, is what separates us from our enemies.  No matter the crime or heinous circumstances, everyone and anyone deserves the rights given by the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments.  With them, we have fairness and equality.  Without them, we have tyranny and broken ideals.

LESSON #2: PATRIOTIC DUTY VERSUS SHARED DISHONOR-- James Donovan was given the thankless task of honoring the Constitutional rights of a hated enemy.  For legally representing Abel, Donovan was torn to shreds by the slanderous press and public.  Someone had to and he took on the chore.  Even his own wife and family gave him the "how could you defend him" Communist sympathizer treatment and grief.  Imagine the same public outcry today likely given to the lawyers caused to defend 9/11 conspirators like Zacarias Moussaoui or Ramzi bin al-Shibh.   What so many other labeled as shared dishonor, Donovan saw as his patriotic duty as a true believer of the law.  He understood Lesson #1 and its decency and importance.  Donovan knew it was more than "everyone deserves a good defense."  He knew his work upheld what made us great.

LESSON #3: UNDERSTANDING SYMPATHY FOR A GREATER CAUSE-- Lesson #1 spoke to the letter of the law and Lesson #2 talked about the duty of it all.  This final lesson is the moral one.  For all of the tough talk of flexed posturing that went on during the Cold War on both sides between the Americans and the Soviets, what won and kept nuclear missiles out of the air wasn't cowardice or superior might.  It was diplomacy and sympathy to know the consequences of the combative alternative of war.  On a smaller scale observed by Donovan and all of those connected by this historical Berlin prisoner exchange, both sides recognized the compromise to be gained by fairness and compassion to one's rival for a greater good, that being preventing another world war.