‘Bridge of Spies’
As a Spielbergian crowd-pleaser, the latest from Steven Spielberg doesn’t really work, in part because the story isn’t that Spielbergian. The storytelling is too muted, the events too heavy on complex bureaucratic wheeling-and-dealing, and it all builds to what is essentially an anticlimax (on a bridge, as it were). These, alas, are the facts of the real-life case, in which an American lawyer, James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), wound up, circa deep Cold War 1957, playing politician between enemy powers. His plan was to help swap a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) caught (in Brooklyn, no less) by the feds for a U.S. pilot (Austin Stowell) captured over enemy lines. Everything’s a beaut, from the usual moody and harshly lit Janusz Kaminski cinematography to the grimy depiction of divided Berlin, in which the chatty second half takes place. But those looking for history simplified into a Capraesque rabble rouser will have to contend with a knottier and lumpier piece where rewards are more modest.
But there are rewards, and “Bridge of Spies” represents the side of Spielberg in which he does battle with his own natural, populist instincts. This is the progressive, some could say naively hopeful side of Spielberg, where he dares, as he did in “Munich,” to see moral equivalency in a case that was then, and possibly even now, seen as a powder keg. Donovan, like William Kunstler after him, was a lawyer who didn’t shy away from defending the thought-to-be indefensible, and the first half charts his unpopular decision to help out Rylance’s disarmingly aloof Rudolf Abel, a man seemingly all of America wants to see executed. Donovan’s reasoning is that Abel is technically not committing treason, as he’s merely doing his job for another nation; moreover, were he to be killed, that would mean other powers would be cool with doing the same to Americans with the same gig. As luck (if you will) would have it, Donovan’s actions come right as the Soviets nab one of America’s own.
Spielberg paints the first half in broad strokes, but the movie really comes alive when Donovan sneaks off to Berlin to negotiate with enemy nations to exchange prisoners. This is also where it’s most evident that two of the screenwriters, namely Joel and Ethan Coen, had a hand, to the point where Spielberg mostly becomes a director-for-hire. The Coens, long obsessed with the case, came in to do a rewrite on an already existing script (by Matt Charman), and they’re clearly all over the darkly funny bits where Donovan has to shlep back and forth between the divided city, struggling to find the right people to oil up, all while fending off a brutal winter and vandals who abscond with his Saks Fifth Avenue overcoat (and then give him directions). Hanks, whose turn in the Coens’ underrated remake of “The Ladykillers” is one of his goofiest highs, acquits himself hilariously, filing a clipped, grouchy performance that again proves he would have been a great asshole in 1990’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” had he been allowed to blemish his nice guy image. The film itself is jagged and fragmented, not really sticking together. But the bits themselves are sound, even fun.