In Steven Spielberg’s latest, Bridge of Spies, we get a glimpse of the infamous director’s views on patriotism and American Exceptionalism. We also get to see an impeccably directed, superbly acted, and remarkably shot film. However there are some weaknesses.
The film’s premise is thus:
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union captures U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers after shooting down his U-2 spy plane. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Powers’ only hope is New York lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), recruited by a CIA operative (Scott Shepherd) to negotiate his release. Donovan boards a plane to Berlin, hoping to win the young man’s freedom through a prisoner exchange. If all goes well, the Russians would get convicted spy Rudolf Abel, who Donovan defended in court years earlier.
This film is pretty much flawlessly directed. Spielberg is, in the opinion of this film reviewer, the finest director of all time and his mastery of the craft shines through here. His trademarks are all present: panning for the sake of exposition, emotional close ups, impeccable blocking and framing, using mirrors, etc. He actually uses portraits as an extension to his normal ‘mirror’ imagery. The narrative also betrays the director’s view of American Exceptionalism; it is a love letter to the United States of America and all it stands for, even when its people don’t always live up to that ideal.
As with almost every other Spielberg film, this movie is superbly acted. Tom Hanks gives a very polished performance, and I do predict that he will be nominated for Best Actor, although I don’t think he will win. The biggest surprise was from Mark Rylance, a Shakespearean actor who portrays the Soviet Spy that is captured. This is the first time I’ve seen him, and I was just very impressed with the performance.
The last half of the movie is really where it shines. Spielberg provides Hitchcockian suspense in the lead up and during the trading of the spies.
This film really feels like two separate films. The first half focuses on the legal defense mounted by Tom Hanks’ character in behalf of the Russian spy, while the second half takes place years later in Cold War Berlin. The first half feels like a heavy-handed message drama, while the last half feels like a true spy thriller. The problem with the film’s dichotomous nature is that the two halves don’t seem to go together. I found the first part to be way too heavy-handed in trying to draw moral parallels between Cold War Era America to the Soviet Union. However, it does really rectify itself in the last shot of the film, which I obviously won’t spoil here.
There isn’t much character development throughout this whole film, especially for Hanks’ character. He stands by his convictions throughout the film, and ends with his convictions more or less validated. I would say that his character is far too perfect of an individual. He doesn’t really have any flaws, which makes him a bit unrelatable. This is especially perplexing when you consider that the Cohen brothers (possibly the most nihilistic filmmakers ever) wrote the screenplay. Their films are very well known for never having flawless protagonists.
Lastly, the lack of a John Williams’ score was sorely felt, at least by me. This is the first Spielberg film since The Color Purple (1985!) that hasn’t a Williams score. Thomas Newman does a decent enough job, but there is no majestic nature to this score. I fear that the golden age of film scoring is at its dusk.
The Bottom Line
My good friend Silas Lesnick over at comingsoon.net called this film “Frank Capra’s Munich.” I think that’s an apt description. It’s an impeccably directed, somewhat blurred moral tale. I do recommend it for all, if only to have a chance to be thoroughly entertained while meditating on what American Exceptionalism is.