As zeitgeist capturing movies go, there’s nothing at all fashionable about Steven Spielberg’s latest drama, the Cold War thriller, “Bridge Of Spies.” An earnest love letter to bygone eras and démodé men, it features almost no handy or culturally relevant metaphors for today’s information age and much like its subject matter, the long-gone, mostly-immaterial Cold War, “Bridge Of Spies” features an unadulterated idealism that feels outdated. A valiant throwback drama about noble men that Spielberg might have made twenty years ago around the time of “Saving Private Ryan,” the picture is a quaint and romanticized look at largely unsung American heroes who did the honorable thing for their country in times of fear, paranoia and mistrust. As hokey as that may sound, there’s also something admirable, even refreshing in swimming against the current tide of cultural filmmaking trends. It’s a classicist movie, made for adults, that dares to say there’s nothing unfashionable about the honorable man. Gregory Peck once wanted to make this ‘based-on-a-true-story’ movie in the 1960s, and Spielberg’s effort feels crafted for that era, mixed with Billy Wilder‘s heart and Howard Hawks‘ sincerity.
Inspired by the impossible-sounding events of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, “Bridge Of Spies” centers on average, everyday American James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a pragmatic insurance lawyer in Brooklyn, New York. Under what might seem like preposterous (but true) circumstances, Donovan is asked by his firm to represent and give a proper defense for the aged Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a recently apprehended and accused Soviet agent living in Brooklyn. But Donovan, an upstanding citizen and family man, soon finds himself in a rigged game where no actual interest in due process exists. No one, not even Donovan’s family or law firm, wants the lawyer to risk his life or reputation and truly defend Abel. This clashes with the man’s principles and the oaths he swore to uphold.
The courtroom drama portion of the film runs its course rather quickly — Abel is found guilty, but not before Donovan can challenge everyone’s beliefs in the man’s right to a fair trial, going so far as to plead an appeal to the Supreme Court — and “Bridge Of Spies” morphs into a different type of movie: the cold war thriller it initially promised. Donovan finds himself in an extraordinary situation as the CIA — who quickly found out he was a man of moral fortitude — enlists his support to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 spy pilot.
And so one could argue “Bridge Of Spies” is one-third courtroom drama and two-thirds Cold War thriller, and while an engaging watch thanks to fine actors and terrific filmmaking, it’s not without its issues.
A drama for perhaps an older generation, in many ways, “Bridge Of Spies” is like Spielberg’s Dad rock album — delivering a solid, but familiar LP that treads well-worn territory that’s safely enjoyable. One could easily see the historical allure of the subject to the filmmaker and star as a tribute to the kinds of men their fathers might have been. As such Hanks’ charismatic, but fairly one-dimensional Donovan character is drawn without flaws— a righteous 1950s American who always wants to do the right thing. And the film hammers the ethical virtuousness of this perfect man over and over again.
By the midpoint of this two hours and twenty-three minute long movie, ‘Spies’ has little new to say about an honorable man trying to navigate dishonorable times, and the film’s ideas of justice and the American way aren’t very morally complex either (though its plea for a more civilized era of warring is perhaps where it’s most relevant today). But it’s a testament to the filmmaking of Steven Spielberg that he makes a compelling film nonetheless.
The director’s technique is impeccable as usual and ‘Spies’ looks like a million bucks in every single frame with art departments, costumes and cinematography working in concert to create something that always looks, feels and smells as top-shelf as the handsome and hardy Sacks Fifth Avenue trenchcoat Hanks wears (Janusz Kaminski‘s lensing is aces as usual). Spielberg could shoot a character reading the phone book and it would still be absorbing, so if some of the movie’s tenor seems routine, predictable and occasionally even banal — and in truth it does at times, but results will vary per viewer — the craft of the movie goes a long way to compensate for its sometimes strained desire to import gravitas.
Co-starring Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Scott Shepherd, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson and more, a solid cast orbits Hanks, but it’s largely the unassuming dry charisma of Mark Rylance, and his improbable friendship with Hanks’ character, that helps him steal the supporting MVP award. Co-written by Ethan and Joel Coen (who did a deep pass after Matt Charman), there’s occasionally a percussive patter and quick-fleetedness to the cadence of the film, and while you’d hardly describe the picture as Coen-esque, the scribes do add some witty flavor to the proceedings. Somewhere between graceful and taking your sweet-ass-time, if viewers were hoping for something akin to “Munich” only set in the Cold War — tense, taut and morally thorny — they’ve come to the wrong place. ‘Spies’ moves at a more measured pace. But its restraint is tonally appropriate for the Cold War; an anxious era of behind-the-scenes dramas where ultimately, no significant shots were fired. Nations were at the ready, but largely holstered with their hostilities and it deftly mines the complexities of fragile and minute tensions.
The movie’s most interesting insight by far is the notion of exploring commonalities between enemies, much of this mined through the mutually respectful relationship between Donovan and Abel. It’s a rich vein to tap, but it’s often overshadowed by Spielberg’s need to please. While many will disagree, the movie is perhaps more akin to “Lincoln” in shape, as a measured and elegantly rendered movie about moral fiber. But if the procedural, I-don’t-care-if-this is entertaining determination of “Lincoln” was its own brand of thrilling filmmaking, ‘Spies’ familiar and morally simple outlook may not engage the critical intelligenstia with the same verve.
A tribute to a reasonable man during unreasonable times, Spielberg has made us believers in the power of cinema over and over again. Whether dazzling and terrorizing us with sharks, dinosaurs or aliens or dropping us into the middle of D-Day, the remarkable filmmaker has convinced and suspended our disbelief with the ease of a maestro conductor. And so, while “Bridge Of Spies” is occasionally jejune and overdone, his greatest trick is taking what sometimes reads like pat, sentimental and banal ideologies and imbuing them with a quiet solemnity that’s quite affecting. This nimble, graceful command of emotional beliefs is Spielberg’s greatest strength once again, showing an excellent facility for taking us over thresholds we’d rather not cross, at least on paper. This kind of nobility can be hackneyed, but the director makes you believe, even if some schmaltzy notes don’t always work. Spielberg can’t resist the urge to wrap up his movie with a perfect bow, but the uncynical, cautious optimism it demonstrates in its final moments feels, by that point, mostly well-earned. [B]