Movie Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge-of-Spies-8It doesn’t matter what type of reflection you’re attempting to create within the vise of a Cold War thriller there will always be comparisons to the bard of espionage himself, John le Carré. His unflinching and cynical perspective—a quality that made his name synonymous with all spy novelizations—represented a poetic extension of the ugly political realities that plagued the Cold War, creating an atmosphere of anguish, fear, and ire that became the antithesis of the glamorous spy adventures of his counterpart Ian Flemming. Adaptations of le Carré’s work have adhered to the pessimistic tone of our lost humanity in an emerging surveillance state and in the fight of opposing ideologies, which include Martin Ritt’s exceptional The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Fernando Meirelle’s formidable The Constant Gardener (2005), and Tomas Alfredson’s underappreciated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011). There’s only the tiniest hint of that signature le Carré futility ingrained in Steven Spielberg’s latest historical drama Bridge of Spies, because Spielberg isn’t guided by the author’s sense of theoretical discernment or analytical condemnation. Instead, Spielberg continuously lends his hand—for better or worse—to idealistic mawkishness, and in doing so tries to keep a sharp focus on the humanity, freedom, and values that need to persist even when a climate of fear, war, or demanded security are slowly eroding them into extinction. In demonstrating a sense of ethical self-reflection towards the United States’ equivalent role in the Cold War, Spielberg ironically highlights (without recognition) that we’re a nobler nation because we dare to introspect and ask the skeptical questions–an attribute that simply didn’t exist on the Soviet side. And because it’s Spielberg, Bridge of Spies only dabbles in disillusionment—of American prominence, values, and moral stances—but luckily, due to a pristine mastery of cinema, the film remains a matured, almost Frank Capra-esque reflection on the meaning of civil-liberties that is timely in its presentation even if it’s dripping with noxious sanctimony.

Bridge of Spies attempts to equate America in a face to face mirroring of Russia’s amoral subterfuge during the Cold War; an aspect that rings mostly true, despite the film’s rather noticeably partisan critique. There’s an overt desire for Spielberg to create a contemporary allegory as he did in his last film Lincoln (2012), only this time it’s aimed towards Washington’s machinations in the global war on terrorism. It’s rather unsubtle, to put it mildly, with even more pontificating on legal principles, enemy treatment, and constitutional values through heavy handed dialogue and overt visual paralleling. However, Spielberg keeps a sense of humanistic grace in all the proceedings, mostly attributed to the effective template in the script setup by screenwriter Matt Charman and added upon by Joel & Ethan Coen, a.k.a. The Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men). Beginning in 1957—a time of fervent political anxiety in the aftermath of the Rosenbergs; an aspect Spielberg recognizes though doesn’t sympathize with in earnest—the script centers on insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) who is requested to defend “alleged” Soviet Union spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in the court of law. Donovan represents the heart and conscience within the film; a hopeful idealist remaining steadfast in the face of callous pragmatism as he becomes reviled at first for representing our constitutional justice and then a hero for acting as the liaison to obtain American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). And despite all the details, the historical parallels, and the rousing monologues Bridge of Spies is left with only one attribute: its heart. As a history lesson it has been separated from context and as a tale of patriarchal integrity it doesn’t match its influences—most notably Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown (1950), and Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)—as it attempts to ask the important questions without the required, firm, and thoughtful admonition.

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Still, that degree of heart is commendable and shines a light on the script’s engrossing humanity, which only occasionally turns its altruistic agenda into overt ethical grandstanding. Through the affable presentation of Rudolf Abel (an effectively quiet, subtle performance from Mark Rylance), Bridge of Spies finds its strongest ethical message—the sacrifice of values when faced with a pitiless foe in a state of national emergency is an eroding toxin in an insecure ideology. The effects of this paranoia can be seen in various characters’ close-minded attitudes (the Judge, CIA Agent Hoffman), but especially when the bullets of reality turn towards ourselves as they penetrate the dreamlike 1950s home of James Donovan. And yet, the strongest attribute to the script is that the film retains a keen sense of levity in the entire proceedings, mostly because of Tom Hanks’ embodiment of Donovan’s compassion, intelligence, and sense of humor (giving his best variation of Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Gary Cooper). A Spielberg film cannot drift confidently into the realm of pure cynicism and the sprinkled moments of laughter amidst danger keep the film tactfully entertaining throughout. Perhaps that can mostly be attributed to the Coen Brothers’ penchant for finding an appropriate blend of darkness with humor—an aspect most certainly borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War comedy Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Bridge of Spies might be split into two different, yet conceptually complete, halves, but it’s the persistence of that Spielberg compassion that keeps the film from drowning in its own rhetorical tropes and slightly annoying level of moral self-awareness.

Spielberg throughout Bridge of Spies recedes to the repetitive polemical features of his previous period pieces Lincoln (2012) and Munich (2006) taking an unyielding aim towards bridging the anxieties of the past with our present realities. This choice certainly has its flaws—event context, relative moralizing, and historical presentism for starters—but the film does feature Spielberg’s undeniable attributes for creating entertainment through the guise of masterful cinema. Whether it’s his subtle sprinkling of homage throughout (marquees that feature Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) and Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961)—a farce about the collision of capitalism and Communism in Berlin) or his standard visual excellence, stirring monologues, and swelling scores, Bridge of Spies finds a confidence in superficial presentation, if not in deep contemplation. The film is meticulously detailed throughout its sets captured in contrasting color palettes from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski—a consistent collaborator of Spielberg’s ever since their Oscar winning Schindler’s List (1993). Visual critiques of the brightly colored conformity driven 1950s America are paralleled to the darkened greys of the amoral threats of the totalitarian Soviet Union, all of which are presented with a fine texture and devout sense of realism. Subtlety in style has never been Spielberg’s specialty, especially in Bridge of Spies where over accentuated tone lighting blended with Thomas Newman’s blatant score take the audience by the dramatic hand in what could be considered cinematic haughtiness at its worst. However, unsubtle filmic characteristics are more forgiving than thematic ones, because getting enraptured with the qualities of cinema makes for a thrilling experience in itself—a masterful quality that Spielberg continuously improves upon with every feature. As overly sentimental and undeniably corny as Bridge of Spies might be, there’s still a masterful hand behind the machine that brings out the film’s more admirable, and human reflections.

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There’s an undeniable critical axiom within Bridge of Spies; an insistent lecture on the past’s lessons being unlearned in the face of the present’s emergence of prisoner abuse, misguided appropriation of American justice, and the creation of the surveillance state. However, it’s a projection of partisan grandstanding rather than a thoroughly thought out reflection on the meaning of civil-liberties and their actual lawful extensions. Rhetorical argumentation and sweeping platitudes can highlight how our values aren’t being implemented to their fullest, but it takes a subtle, lighter touch in order to deliver a thoughtful message. Instead, Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies works best as an inspiring fable—an “inspired by true events” allegory that removes historical accuracy and context to replace it with a sweeping reflection on the importance of justice. The first half might be a self-righteous homily, but its in the second half where intriguing espionage gamemanship brings out the best features of a shadowy world of political crevasses, morally grey ponderings, and devious ideologues on both sides. Spielberg does his best to embrace sweeping compassion and avoids the cynicism of John le Carré’s contemplations. But ingrained in its final shot—one that comes too late after three overdone conclusions attributed to Spielberg’s need for a sentimental clean ending—there’s a somber juxtaposition of children playing with those gunned down at the Berlin wall. It’s a rather disturbing metaphor for the importance and fragility of freedom that’s powerful in its silence–an aspect that gives Spielberg’s warnings more significance than all of his blunt orations could have done.

Grade: B-

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