“Bridge of Spies”
Walt Disney Studios
2 hours, 21 minutes
Successful collaborations, in any line of work, but particularly in the arts, come about because the people involved feel comfortable with each other.
Take the team of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Hanks is, as we all know, a great actor, but when combined with Spielberg’s almost preternatural ability to tell a good story, and the result is always something special. The two work so well together that when it was announced that Hanks was going to star in Spielberg’s Cold War drama “Bridge of Spies,” it just seemed like a foregone conclusion. Like, “Oh, sure. Of course he’s going to do a movie with Tom Hanks. Those guys work together all the time.”
Not so. I was surprised to learn, after wracking my brains to come up the answer, that the two have only worked together three previous times: “Saving Private Ryan,” “Catch Me if You Can,” and “The Terminal.”
“Spies” tells the story of the arrest and trial of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in the late 1950s. Hanks, playing defense attorney James Donovan, does his usual excellent work playing a man conflicted about what he’s doing but driven by principle. Donovan is tasked with defending the accused Soviet agent by his firm against his wishes, but once on the case, is determined to give it his all.
The job is made harder by the fact that anti-Russian sentiment in the United States is at a fever pitch and Donovan and his family are in the cross-hairs with the most hated man in America.
Abel, for his part, is taciturn and seemingly unconcerned. He’s an old man and seems resigned to his fate, his only wish that he be allowed to continue painting while in prison. Being partners, of a sort, the two men become friends. Actor Mark Rylance is amazing as Abel. He manages to steal his scenes with one of the biggest movie stars in the world while saying almost nothing.
Though Donovan is unable to beat the charges against his client, he does succeed in getting the judge to stay the death penalty — the logic being that eventually an American spy is going to fall into the hands of the Soviets, and America would need a bargaining chip. Lo and behold, a few years later, American pilot Gary Powers, at the stick of the experimental U-2 spy plane, is shot down over Russia, creating an international incident. It is decided an exchange of prisoners can be made, and who better to broker the deal than the man who foresaw it in the first place.
I really enjoyed “Bridge of Spies.” I expected to, and, as per usual, Spielberg didn’t let me down.
There’s been a discussion on-line and in different publications lately about the director’s work and how critics have been hot and cold on him over the years, not sure how to take his particular brand of sincerity and optimism. The trend in thinking now is back to the way most of us have always felt — that he is certainly the greatest living director and a legitimate contender for the greatest director of all time.
Spielberg’s films are broken down, however, into his minor and major works, the distinction being, I suppose, that the majors are earth-shaking in some way that the minors are not. I suppose that’s legitimate — “The Terminal” and “Saving Private Ryan” both star Hanks, but you can’t argue they have the same impact.
That said, I think I enjoy movies like “The Terminal,” and “Catch Me if You Can,” or even “War Horse,” or all the way back to “Always,” even more than the important works. Spielberg is, above all, a masterful storyteller and these lesser films may not seem as important, but that frees them up to simply tell a good story.
All this is to say that I would probably put “Bridge of Spies” in the minor category of Spielberg’s oeuvre. Enough time has passed that we, as Americans, can allow ourselves to look back at the Russkies with a new perspective. As Abel tells Donovan, “You have men in my country doing the same work. Wouldn’t you want them treated well?” It’s very interesting, but not particularly mind-blowing.
It’s almost beside the point to discuss any of the technical aspects of the film, just like it’s a waste of breath to go on about how great the animation in a Pixar film is. Spielberg is a master. We are watching one of the great artists in history at the top of his game. His team is incredible. His longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski beautifully contrasts the hazy Technicolor of 1950s America with the stark bombed-out bitterness of East Berlin. It would almost be more of a story if there had been anything substandard about the construction of the film. That the script, co-written by the Coen Brothers, is just very good is about the worst criticism I can make.
“Bridge of Spies” is the kind of movie that used to be fairly commonplace. A well-made, entertaining movie for adults that isn’t about sex or violence, but rather ideas.
No, the movie isn’t “Lincoln” or “Schindler’s List.” No, it’s not going to occupy your mind for weeks. It’s just a good story, well told, and Hollywood needs more movies like it.
“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for adult themes, a scene of violence, and brief strong language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.