Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Set in a smaller world during a darker time, the latest collaboration between director Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks takes place at the height of the Cold War and is inspired by the real events concerning Brooklyn lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) who found himself thrust into the middle of international intrigue by agreeing to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in an American court of law. Spielberg's humanism is certainly on display in a film that feels a bit like a throwback to his movies from the late 90s and early 2000s.

While dealing primarily with Donovan and the effects and consequences of his defense of Abel, Bridge of Spies also introduces two subplots which eventually will be woven into the main storyline. The first of these concerns U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) recruited by the CIA and shot down over the Soviet Union. And the last concerns an American economics student (Will Rogers) studying overseas during the erection of the Berlin Wall who gets in trouble while trying to help the daughter of his professor out of East Germany. Although competently presented, neither is as engaging as Donovan's tale.

More akin to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than James Bond or The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Spielberg's movie is a drama first, with plenty of commentary about the times in which the story unfolds and the reactions of others to Donovan's hard choices, and a slow-burning spy story second. More than once Hanks has been compared to Jimmy Stewart who would have been the obvious choice for the role had this film been made at the time rather than over half a century later. Much like Stewart's most recognizable roles, here Hanks finds himself as an honest soul in a world that has its own ways of doing things and, both in his actions and words, continues to argue for the merits of American democracy and standing up for them even when doing so might not be in an individual's best interest.

I was pleasantly surprised with Bridge of Spies. I certainly wouldn't rank it among Spielberg's best, but Matt Charman's script, helped out by a rewrite from the Coen brothers, interweaves multiple storylines and perspectives while Spielberg and his design team capably recreate a divided Germany and the feel of Cold World boiling tensions both at home and abroad.

Stowell, as the U-2 pilot, is the film's weakest link as both he and his character come off wooden. The blame for this doesn't lay entirely at the actor's feet as given the needs of Donova's storyline there's simple not enough time to develop the character and subplot and still keep to the film's 141-minute running time. On the other hand Rogers makes the most of his even more limited screentime and I would have gladly seen the film lengthened a bit to give us more of his story and learn whatever happened to the woman (Nadja Bobyleva) he was attempting to save before being thrown into an East German prison where only Donovan's quixotic quest could offer any help of freedom.

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