Review: Bridge of Spies Is a Polished but Flat Movie

3 out of 5 stars.
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The Cold War era is a time period that feels rich with narrative storytelling, whether films are based on real or fictional accounts. The recent “sports drama” Pawn Sacrifice rather brilliantly used the political climax to explain the importance of a simple chest match. The overwhelming sense the Cold War had of this being a time of the great unknown fills stories with intimate drama, and some of the true stories that came out around these events, when we seemed to be on the verge all-out nuclear war, are truly fascinating. Francis Gary Powers’ story is a somewhat known part of history, but Bridge of Spies focuses on “the real hero” of the negotiation to get him out of Russia after his airplane was shot down: attorney James Donovan.

Initially, Bridge of Spies feels like a very different film for both Tom Hanks to star in and Spielberg to direct. Like Lincoln, where the most compelling moments are the often infuriating legal backdoor politics, Hanks play’s Donovan as our pragmatic hero. He knows the facts, knows how to manipulate, but honestly believes very specific things and stands by those beliefs. Having worked as one of the prosecutors of the Nuremberg trials, the insurance attorney is assigned to defend Rudolf Abel (the amazing English actor Mark Rylance), accused of being a Soviet spy, and try to give him a fair “American” defense, which is immediately undermined by an overly “patriotic” judge.

This part of the film is a compelling, worthy drama. But it plays out very quickly, and we get very little of the work Donovan put into the defense for the trial. Instead, of the larger concepts that would be interesting, there is focus more on how the trial is affecting his family and tying it to the nature of fear building up because of the Cold War. And it (too bluntly) allows Donovan to lay the groundwork for the exchange of Abel and Powers (Austin Stowell) by the two countries. Then, it makes a big shift and primarily becomes about Donovan’s time in Berlin, just after the wall went up, when negotiating this exchange in addition to Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) as a second American release.

Oddly, the movie was written by the Coen brothers (along with Matt Charman), and just as it doesn’t feel like a signature Spielberg movie, with that touch of wonder, it also doesn’t feel much like a Coen brothers film. The work of both these auteurs together almost cancels the other out. It’s just a pretty straight forward political drama that looks good and has some decent dialogue, but there’s nothing “special” about this movie. Yes, it does tend to look pretty good. Spielberg manages to recreate the Berlin Wall building surprisingly well, along with the sense of the desperation that was felt by those who had to live behind such physical oppression. The shear cold conveyed in Berlin comes through loud and clear. Although the American scenes are a bit too beautiful at times, there are a few noir inspired moments that work surprisingly well.

And this is definitely a strong Tom Hanks performance. Unlike Spielberg’s work with Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, Tom Hanks is never overtly trying to impersonate Donovan or play the role as anything but his own personal interpretation. After all, Hanks has a certain ’50s Hollywood good-guy quality to his work anyway, and he never plays Donovan as “heroic,” which would have been the kiss of death for this movie. His work with Rylance is phenomenal, both so reserved and attentive in their back-and-forth. And there are few good scenes with Alan Alda as his boss and Amy Ryan as his wife, but both Academy Award nominees feel oddly underutilized.

But the reason I’m still lukewarm on this film is the surprising lack of lack of precision that the story seems to be crying out for. They leave a lot out about Donovan’s life: his navy career, previous work with the CIA in establishing their guidelines, and details about the Nurenberg trail (like the fact that the KGB would have known him as the attorney that presented physical evidence), as well as the specifics of what Power and Abel were actually doing. For example, I had no idea that Abel served 4 years in prison before the Power exchange. And there is no moral discussion when the CIA talks about leaving Pryor imprisoned to get Powers out—one scene that really showed that while Donovan was truly pragmatic, the CIA could be ruthless.

And I’ll be honest: there were a few moments when Hanks was talking about “this is why America is better” that annoyed me, but the bigger problem is framing Donovan as a David vs the KGB giants. He might have been one man, and his work on behalf of freeing Pryor especially heroic, but he was no innocent underdog in this scenario, either and didn’t need to be portrayed as one for the film to be compelling and make a lot more sense.

Like I mentioned, it looks really good, and while (for better or worse) it doesn’t have the Spielberg personality behind it, his technical skills are still very noticeably on display. I’m honestly more annoyed that this is a Coen brothers film because of what I expect from them. The story seems like something that would have been perfect for one of their political films (drama or comedy), and yet, I have no idea what they brought to this script. Like last year’s very disappointing Unbroken, which they also wrote, seeing their name on a script they didn’t direct leaves me expecting a pretty lifeless and uninspired screenplay.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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