Bridge of Spies and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios and 20th Century Fox
Directed by Steven Spielberg
We’re well into the Oscar season by this point, but now it’s time for the BIG guns to strut their stuff, and you can’t get any bigger the Steven Spielberg!! It also seems that he’s found a niche that he’s starting to get comfortable with considering this is his second historical film based on a bunch of lawyers and politicians arguing during a very contentious time in our country’s history. Does Spielberg remind us once again why he’s one of Hollywood’s greatest living directors, or will this be one of those lesser films he makes that we’ll all forget about as soon as his next film is made? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins in 1957 with the arrest of Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and the media storm that surrounded it. When it comes time to actually try the bastard, the US government hires a law firm to represent Rudolf so that at least it can APPEAR to be a legit trial instead of a kangaroo court. Unfortunately for everyone, the man the law firm assigns to the case is James B Donovan (Tom Hanks) who actually believes in the constitution and won’t just let the legal system run all over this guy. For doing the right thing, he ends up drawing unwanted attention from hot heads looking to see some Soviet scumbag hang as well as the ire of the FBI who want him to tell them everything that Rudolph has said in their meetings which would obviously be a breach of attorney client privilege. While this is going on, we occasionally cut to Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stonewall) who is a US solider training to be a spy and will one day fly a stealth plane of USSR territories to take covert pictures. Will fate conspire to put him in a similar situation as Rudolph Abel finds himself now? What kinds of consequences will James incur for himself, his law firm, and his family for simply believing in and fighting for what the constitution guarantees? Just how many awards will Spielberg win for directing a period piece political thriller starring Tom Hanks!? Like… fifty?
The movie starts off REALLY strong, with Spielberg’s unique direction on full display to remind you who’s the damn king of cinema. Hell, the first ten minutes of this is completely silent as we watch Rudolf Abel going about his daily routine and receiving a message from one of his Soviet contacts. The attention to detail in every shot mimics the way that these characters operate on a day to day basis which does a lot (without a single line of dialogue) to get across how skilled these people are and what kind of lives they have to live. Just watching Rudolph Abel take all the necessary steps to get his itty bitty tiny message and then spending hours to decode it is exhausting to see, yet Mark Rylance’s performance (again, with no dialogue) plays it off like a simple routine. Old hat if you will. Even when the movie actually gets to the story (Rudolph’s trial and James B Donovan defending him), the movie never lets up on its effortlessly wonderful sense of filmmaking. Speaking of the story, it’s actually quite remarkable here how much mileage they can mine from this historical event in terms of thematic resonance. Like Spielberg’s other recent political movie Lincoln, this one feels way too relevant despite it being set in a time that people like to think we’ve become so much better than it since. Look at how some people were reacting to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed getting a trial in New York City. People like Representative Candice Miller (or even former comedian Dennis Miller) were spewing talking points that are almost verbatim of what you hear from the characters who are constantly trying to stonewall Donovan’s case or just giving him shit for doing his job in the first place.
Sadly, Donovan’s speech about America being the country it is because we do the right thing instead of the easy thing seems to have fallen on deaf ears in recent decades which is what makes this movie feel so important. The current polarizing climate since 9/11 and the War on Terror is eerily reminiscent of what it must have been like in the Cold War and it has led to some pretty bad results for us now, especially when you look at the cluster fuck that is Guantanamo Bay.
The script as well is very strong with Donovan’s words very carefully chosen in each scene (as any good lawyer would do) and the emotional outbursts from those who don’t understand why he’s helping this spy out. They have the right levels of misguided passion, especially in a world that is still gripped with the fear of a possible nuclear exchange between the US and USSR. This is co-written by the Coen Brothers (Matt Charman is also credited) and as usual they manage to write really intense and enjoyable dialogue. The acting as well is top notch, but you really don’t expect anything less with Spielberg in the directing chair and the cast they have in the film. With so much going for this movie in terms of its sheer craftsmanship and the relevance it has to today’s political climate, it really is one of the better films I’ve seen this year. And then the movie just ends about halfway through its running time. Yeah. About an hour in, they not only go through Rudolph’s trial but his two appeals as well, leaving a lot of plot threads just hanging. With a damn near audible “KA-CHUNK”, the movie switches gears entirely and is about something that James Donovan did YEARS after the trial. At some point, Francis Powers gets shot down over USSR airspace and is sentenced to prison just like Rudolph Able was. Negotiations begin to bargain for his release, and the US calls in James Donovan (who doesn’t work for the government and would technically not link these negotiations back to them or something like that) to try and get an exchange between Rudolph Able and Francis Powers. Along with that, there’s an American student who got caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and has been a prisoner of the East Berlin government (not the USSR) and Donovan is trying to finagle a way to get him released along with Powers. This section of the movie is also fantastic in its own way, focusing on the absurdity of Berlin being split down the middle as well as the tactics used by all three governments (US, USSR, and East Berlin) to try and manipulate each other into getting exactly what they want. The details are amazing, the negotiation scenes are intense, and there are even moments of absurd humor as we are reminded that all the parties may not know exactly what they’re doing but they’ll be damned if they let the other guys know that.
Comparing the two films though, I think I liked the first one better even though it definitely feels more flawed because of the undercut run time for it. Some things just went by too fast (the appeals), some things never got resolved (I could have sworn Donovan’s daughter was dating his paralegal), and while it does wrap up with a great speech by Tom Hanks that I’m sure is pulled right from the Supreme Court transcript, his story doesn’t have all that much closure. He was hated and reviled by EVERYONE for representing a man that everyone knew was guilty (because he was) to the point that they didn’t have enough faith in the justice system to think he should get a fair trial. There comes a point in the movie where his family is attacked by a random gunman simply for doing his job, and yet everything just seems to be fine after the appeals didn’t go anywhere. Maybe everyone did cool off after the trials were done, but it would have been nice to see something like that instead of having to assume it. What manages to work about the first movie though works spectacularly and manages to make it the better film when compared to the second one they shoved into this feature. While the second movie does feel more complete as a story, it just doesn’t have the same resonance and significance that we got from the first film which does a great job of telling us about our own political climate by simply giving a history lesson. The second movie is pretty much a low-key spy thriller which is very enjoyable to watch, but doesn’t have as much of a message it wants to impart to its audience. They MIGHT have been trying to relate Francis Powers to Bowe Bergdahl what with everyone in America hating him due to the fact that Powers was trained to kill himself if he was to be captured but didn’t which put American secrets and a large bargaining chip right into the Soviet’s hands. If this was the intent though, the movie does a poor job of exploring it because it only TELLS us one time that Americans are upset with the dude rather than SHOW us in any significant way.
There’s also a brief epilogue at the end where we get some text telling us that on top of what we saw in the movie, the dude negotiated the release of over a THOUSAND hostages in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs invasion!! HOLY CRAP!! We didn’t get to see THAT in the movie!?!? It just goes to show the major problem with basing movies off of history, whether they are biopics or retellings of certain events. Life just doesn’t operate in a three act structure, so there’s going to be some give and take between historical accuracy and telling a proper narrative. I think that this movie does a pretty bad job at that balancing act, what with the clipped nature of the first half and the REALLY interesting event they simply told us about at the end instead of making that a part of the movie. Still, this is Spielberg which is almost always a safe bet for fantastic film experiences. This suffers due to the compromised it had to make to get the full scope of what they wanted to within a reasonable running time, but that’s not enough to make this any less than great.
If you like this review and plan on buying the movie, then use the Amazon link below! I’ll get a percentage of the order it helps keep things going for me here at The Reviewers Unite! In fact, you don’t even need to buy the item listed! Just use the link, shop normally, and when you check out it will still give us that sweet, sweet, percentage! You can even bookmark the link and use it every time you shop! HOW AWESOME IS THAT!?