WRITTEN REVIEW – Bridge of Spies (2015)
Bridge of Spies
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Matt Charman, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell & Will Rogers
Music: Thomas Newman
Release Date: September 27th 2015
The Cold War seems to gone out of favour in recent years in terms of its portrayal in film. World War 2, the War on Terror and other 20th/21st century conflicts are continually told and re-told on film whereas the U.S.A. and Soviet Russian conflict between the 1950s and 1990s doesn’t get much love. This could mainly be because this was a war of intimidation, words and espionage as opposed to gunpowder and artillery. That sort of approach isn’t quite cinematic or action-packed enough for the big-budget, mainstream arena.
Well it’s a good thing that this Cold War true-story is brought to us from a visual master of his craft, Steven Spielberg and has a screenplay from British Playwright Matt Charman with re-drafts and touch-ups by the Coen Brothers. If anyone is going to make the Cold War interesting and thrilling to a mainstream audience, it’s that combination. While Spielberg may not be with his master musician John Williams this time around, he does keep his cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (‘Schindler’s List‘) and actor Tom Hanks in his fourth collaboration with the director (‘Saving Private Ryan‘, ‘Catch Me If You Can‘ and ‘The Terminal‘). Can ‘Bridge of Spies‘ stand out amongst such an esteemed résumé or are even these filmmakers unable to make the Cold War interesting?
In 1957 New York, a Russian is arrested under suspicion of being a Soviet Spy during the Cold War. In order to give the impression of a fair trial to showcase America’s moral high ground, the U.S. government assign the supposed spy, Rudolf Abel (Rylance) an insurance lawyer to act as his defence attorney; James B. Donovan (Hanks). Despite being given the thankless task of defending someone the public considers a threat to America, James tries his best to give Rudolf the best defence he can. His patience is ultimately rewarded as the Russians take an American air-pilot prisoner, Gary Powers (Stowell) and James is asked to organise and oversee the swap of both political prisoners. But things are complicated further as the swap is to take place in East Berlin as the Berlin Wall is being erected and another American is taken prisoner. James must make sure the swap takes place safely and ensure the safe return of both Gary Powers and American Student Frederic Pryor (Rogers).
It’s a rather lengthy plot synopsis but that’s because it’s an expansive story with many moving gears and many characters spanning different continents. Being based off a true story that took place during the Cold War, it’s full of political-jargon, lots of secrets, off-the-books accounts and unclear motivations but the script, originally penned by Matt Charman, is well structured for the most part and makes the information very easy to understand and incredibly accessible for those not in the know. Prior knowledge or context of the Cold War is not necessary to understand what’s happening as the movie does a great job filling in the necessary gaps.
‘Bridge of Spies‘ may only consist of one action beat (an incredibly well done plane crash sequence) but it’s still a thrilling movie despite 99% of it consisting of dialogue sequences. It consists of verbal sparring sequences that are expertly put together, entertaining and thoroughly engaging and, of course, Tom Hanks is a perfect leading man for this type of dialogue. He’s the type of actor who can portray an every-man despite being one of the most recognisable performers on the planet. A sequence early on where he explains to an FBI agent what it means to “be American” is one of many incredibly quotable and richly detailed dialogue sequences that are sprinkled throughout the 141 minute runtime.
About that runtime though, ‘Bridge of Spies‘ is a bit on the long side. It’s not boring despite its length and it’s always engaging but you get the sense that the screenplay, as strong as it is thanks to three great writers, could have been edited down. The first act in particular feels very drawn out as they flesh out the context as to how and why Gary Powers got shot down flying over Soviet Airspace. The sequences of Gary being taken into the CIA and learning about his mission aren’t bad by any stretch, but they feel edited in such a way that they’re interrupting James B. Donovan’s storyline which should be the main focus. It shouldn’t matter HOW Gary Powers got kidnapped by the Russians. What matters to James is that he GOT kidnapped. These extended Gary Powers sequences aren’t bad by any means, but they feel far less interesting than the Donovan storyline.
But ‘Bridge of Spies‘ is a movie with a strong moral compass; the type of all-American, patriotic story but it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. James B. Donovan isn’t a kind, compassionate person because he’s American, it’s because he has a strong set of values and never assumes that Rudolf Abel is a spy. As an insurance lawyer he’s able to talk his way out of most situations and he has a way with words but he wants to prove to himself that the country he lives in will treat Rudolf the same as everyone else regardless of the conflict America and Russia are in. His true story is great for narrative purposes as he’s a great underdog where the people of America hate him because he’s trying to defend someone, but he’s admirable in the fact that he truly believes in what he’s doing.
And Rudolf Abel is a great, unassuming character who gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie thanks to Mark Rylance’s dry performance. The whole supporting cast are great with Austin Stowell playing the part perfectly as an all-American-soldier as well as a huge cast with lots of small supporting players who give great performances. Dakin Matthews, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons, Peter McRobbie, the cast is huge and everyone comes out of ‘Bridge of Spies‘ strong.
Which is all well and good because ‘Bridge of Spies‘, at its core, is a human story driven by the actions of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. It’s a compelling true story and, to my knowledge, ‘Bridge of Spies‘ doesn’t take many liberties. In fact, ‘Bridge of Spies‘ is the type of story where you can imagine a sequel being made because the text at the end of the movie opens up many other fascinating true stories that could be told. It makes for compelling homework material, I’ll tell you that for a fact.
Despite being a human story, you bring in a director like Steven Spielberg and you have a brilliant cinematic experience as well. Everything to be expected in a Spielberg production is here; dynamic, thoughtful camera placement, AMAZING lighting, top-notch period production values, costumes, make-up etc. Not to belittle a Spielberg production by saying “to be expected” as this is clearly a director at the top of his game. It just shows that Spielberg, even on his worst day stands head and shoulders above most directors on their best.
The production design is perfectly suited to the time period with classy costumes, awesome hats, cool cars and such. But it also captures the time period perfectly and the sense of insecurity going on around America. One scene that doesn’t even factor into the plot has James’ son telling him what they need to do if Russia launches a nuclear strike; fill the bath with water so they have a reserve in case their supply gets caught off. It was a complex time in the world and it wasn’t just America and Russia undergoing hardship as the movie sets most of its third act in East Berlin when the Berlin Wall had just been erected, separating the country based on political allegiance during the Cold War.
There’s a sequence where Frederic Pryor is cycling past the wall as construction takes place and families can be seen trying to get to the side where their loved ones are and what lengths they’re taking. Just like the feeling Spielberg brought to ‘Schindler’s List‘ in 1993, ‘Bridge of Spies‘ is presenting one story that is skirting around the edges of hundreds of other stories. History is a complex web of narratives and lives and Spielberg, once again, makes this world feel lived in while also not losing focus of the story he’s trying to tell and making it feel immediate. Thomas Newman’s music feels grandiose and matches the emotions well, though the male choral addition during the Russian segment feels very on the nose.
‘Bridge of Spies‘ is an incredibly strong and profound Cold War drama surrounding complex true events. The performances are top-notch across the board with Tom Hanks, unsurprisingly, producing stellar work, the production values are brilliant, Steve Spielberg’s fingerprints are all over it and the script is endearing, funny and human. While the first act is a bit stop-start adding up to a film that feels over-long, there’s not much wrong with ‘Bridge of Spies‘. Though I can’t shake the feeling that it could have gone a bit further with the drama and maybe have been a bit louder with its emotions. But that’s the issue with doing a movie set in the Cold War; it wasn’t loud. It was an understated war so maybe the quiet approach isn’t just a stylistic choice, it’s a necessity to accurately represent that era of history. It was a war of words and quiet deeds and in that regard ‘Bridge of Spies‘ excels.
I give ‘Bridge of Spies‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 27th Nov 15