Steven Spielberg is an…interesting director. With a career now spanning 40 plus years and nearly as many movies, across multiple genres, settings and tones, he’s the biggest mainstream artist of the modern film industry. He manages to hit that rare balancing act where his movies are both well made and meaningful, but still financially successful. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk, and it’s even more impressive that he manages to walk it so consistently.
Now the Coen Brothers, they’re…they’re special. Gradually, over the course of the last three decades, they’ve managed to grab the title of premier artists in the movie making business. Point to almost any of their movies, and you’ll see something incredible, that almost no other filmmaker could accomplish, and their screenplays remain some of the best in the business. So when these two titans of the art form work together, the result has to be incredible, right?
In essence, there’s two major plot lines to this film. The first, and much less important, is the one that kicks off the movie; In 1957, a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York. In order to maintain that he got a fair trial, they appoint a well known insurance lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to be his defender, despite the overwhelming anti-Communist sentiment going through the country at the time. He is, naturally, quickly convicted, but at Donovan’s suggestion, they don’t execute him, lest they need to exchange him for a prisoner the USSR is holding.
Naturally that’s exactly what happens; A U2 Spy Pilot (not Bono, don’t worry) is shot down over the Soviet Union and captured. The USA, realizing they need to retrieve him quickly, before he reveals what he knows about the plane’s construction, send Donovan to negotiate the swap. But the situation is complicated by the tenuous relationship between the USSR and East Germany, Donovan’s desire to release a college student being held by the East Germans, and the increased security around East Germany.
Like it or not, this movie has to be compared to Spielberg’s previous film (and its closest relative in his filmography) Lincoln. And in that comparison it falls a bit short. The plot is less focused than Lincoln‘s (as indicated by my two-plot summary) and its stakes feel a little lower. Sure that’s partially because the actual historical stakes are lower (sorry, whether or not slavery is abolished is a little more important than whether or not the US gets to keep its secrets from the USSR). There’s also not a lot of time devoted to the pilot of the spy plane, so we never really get to know him as a person.
But that minor quibble aside, Bridge of Spies is an excellent little thriller. It takes a lot of effort to make what amounts to a lawyer wandering half blind through a volatile political situation, but Spielberg manages to do it. It’s not perfect (mostly for the reasons I listed above), but in terms of 2015 movies, it’s definitely in the top half. And not just because 2015 has been an overall weak year…although, I am seeing improvement from the prestige movies.
Most of the movie is on Tom Hanks to hold together, as he’s the only character with more than a relative handful of scenes, and he’s pretty damned good. Between Cloud Atlas and Captain Phillips he’s been on a role lately, and its nice to see it continue, even if he is pretty downplayed, since he’s playing a pretty normal guy caught in a very abnormal situation.
There’s not a lot of movies that star lawyers outside of a courtroom situation, but focusing on him was definitely the right choice, as it gives the events a sense of enormity that focusing on someone who was more in the loop, or even knew everything that was going on, might not. And while I’m on the subject Mark Rylance is pretty memorable as the incredibly downplayed Rudolf Abel (I couldn’t find a place to fit that in more smoothly).
That sense of enormity seems to be the main point of the Coen Brother’s screenplay, emphasizing the sheer size of the events, by focusing on the smallest people involved in it. I feel like there could be more done with that (the fact that Rudolf Abel was overall not a very good spy is a historical fact that I don’t recall how I became aware of, but it would fit right in here). Seeing this conflict and its repercussions from the bottom up really helps emphasize how insane the entire conflict is, which is really the story we need to be telling about the Cold War.
All of this is held together by Spielberg’s excellent direction. Saying that Spielberg is an excellent director feels pretty redundant, as even when his movies are bad (which is pretty rare but does happen), his direction is on point. He maintains, similar to Lincoln, an ability to shoot and edit conversational scenes in such a way to make them engaging and entertaining.
I’ve said, on a couple of occasions, this year has been overall pretty weak. [Editor’s Note: On occasion? You’ve brought it up every freaking week). But on the plus side, since the summer blockbuster season was overall exceptionally weak, the fall and winter prestige season has been pretty awesome. I don’t know if that’s because the summer was so weak, or because they’re genuinely great, but either way, I’ll take it. And Bridge of Spies is definitely one of the better ones thus far. If it’s playing near you, don’t miss it.
Elessar is a 25 year old Alaskan born cinephile and could someone please tell him what book he read to get that information about Abel? It’s been driving him nuts.
– fantastic direction
– great screenplay
– good acting from Hanks and Rylance
– weak structure
– stakes feel a little low at times