Mark Reviews Movies

Bridge of Spies


3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Scott Shepherd, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers, Alan Alda

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:15

Release Date: 10/16/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 15, 2015

It is a lonely existence to be a man of principle in a world of ideologues and power-seekers. That's the takeaway of the first half of Bridge of Spies, a stark political thriller that is set against the tensions of the Cold War and that, quite surprisingly, has a rather light, comic touch.

The latter part, we have to assume, comes from the screenplay co-written by Ethan and Joel Coen and Matt Charman, and that aspect of the film doesn't really show itself fully until the second half. The film is directed by Steven Spielberg. We expect that he'll more-than-competently handle the gravitas of the first act, in which a man fights for the principles of a country that has determined those principles aren't convenient at the moment. It's always a pleasant surprise to be reminded that Spielberg can also display the light, comic touch that dominates the second half.

It dominates the film because it comes as such a surprise after the overwhelming sincerity of the first act. The film still remains genuine in its stance favoring the virtues of principle over the expediency of ideology, but it also wants to expose that expediency as a form of absurdity.

In other words, Spielberg pulls off a tricky balancing act of tone, in which he and the screenwriters want us to simultaneously feel the creeping threat of and be amused by these systems of political expediency. That, as it turns out, is fairly simple: The film merely has to explain their motives to us, and the threat and the absurdity of them are self-evident.

The principled man is James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York City attorney who mostly handles cases for insurance companies. Before we meet him, though, we follow Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and the various FBI agents following him in an energetic sequence that, at points, plays out like a farce (The feds lose their target and find each other, before one agent literally bumps into his mark).

Donovan comes into play when, in 1957, the local Bar Association decides he would be best attorney to defend Abel in the Soviet national's trial for multiple conspiracy charges. It's a public relations move, really, since the U.S. government wants the appearance of a fair trial to show its moral superiority to the Soviet Union. Behind the scenes, though, everyone is convinced Abel is guilty.

Only Donovan believes the trial truly should be fair, but his concerns, primarily involving the Fourth Amendment, are dismissed at every turn, including when he brings Abel's case to the Supreme Court of the United States. Everyone hates him for holding up the standards upon which the country was founded, and even his wife (Amy Ryan, very good in a disappointingly limited role) and children don't understand his fight.

This alone is fascinating stuff—exploring the way the legal system bends to the will of the political will and cultural fears of the time. At the heart of it is the relationship between these two men, who are forced to share a certain level of trust on account of the circumstances. Hanks is innately earnest and commandingly still, intentionally echoing a story Abel tells about a "standing man" from his youth. Rylance is equally impressive in the way he communicates a sense of fear and melancholy beneath his stone-faced exterior. This is a man who is certain his life is finished. He has resigned himself to that fact, knowing that he is doing the right thing by his country, but that doesn't make the ordeal any easier.

With Abel's fate set, the film jumps forward five years. An Air Force pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), flying a top-secret mission over the Soviet Union in an equally top-secret U-2, is shot down and captured. Around the same time, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student studying Communist economics in Berlin, is arrested along the just-erected Berlin Wall.

The CIA wants Donovan to go to Berlin and negotiate for the release of Powers, offering Abel in exchange for their man, whom they won't officially say is their man. Pryor, obviously, isn't of any interest to them. Donovan, of course, won't officially be there at the behest of the United States government, although only the most naïve of people would believe an insurance attorney from Brooklyn would travel to Berlin of his own volition to negotiate a prisoner swap between two ideological enemies on the world stage.

There's a lot of double-speak and insinuation here (what's "official," what's "unofficial," and how "unofficial" is really just "official" with a wink), which Charman and the Coens exploit for great comic effect. Donovan sits down with a series of bureaucrats on all sides. Keep in mind, it's not only the United States and the Soviet Union with an interest in this exchange. There's also the German Democratic Republic, which has ties to the Soviet Union but is acting on its own in an attempt to be recognized by the U.S. At play here are obvious ideologues, power-hungry bureaucrats, and a mysterious attorney, who may or may not exist, representing Abel's family, which may or may not be real. Also, Donovan comes down with a cold in the harsh Berlin winter (made even more severe by Janusz Kaminski's gray-toned cinematography), so he's eager to finish this up as quickly as possible.

The stakes are incredibly high, with the lives of three men on the line (Even then, it's difficult to tell if would be better for Abel to stay in an American prison or to return to his homeland), but this is a game for everyone but Donovan. The players lie to and deceive each other, and everyone involved knows that their opponents are liars and deceivers. The question is whether or not a principled man—staying as calm as possible in this web, lest the spiders notice him—can bend the rules by remaining honest—or at least as honest as an insurance lawyer with a mentality for reducing liability can be.

Spielberg, the ever-reliant cinematic optimist, might not seem like the appropriate choice for material this overtly cynical, but he brings a level of empathy to even the most blatant of political movers and shakers. That not only deepens the comedy of Bridge of Spies but also adds a layer of forlorn lament to the proceedings—if only we could recognize how united we are in our foibles.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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