Watching Bridge of Spies, I realized almost immediately the difference between a beautiful film and a handsome film. Steven Spielberg’s latest movie is handsome. It’s cleanly shot, polished, glossy, with impeccable acting in almost every scene. Even the handheld shots have a kind of austerity about them that suggest prestige; a suit-tie-and-hat sort of movie, and not just because the majority of the characters wear suits, ties, and hats.
The screenplay for Bridge of Spies was written by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen. Every now and then in this handsome movie, a little bit of the Coens deadpan humor peeks through. Yet as the film jumps genres and locations, it ultimately feels more Spielberg than Coens, and, in fact, it feels more Frank Capra than Coens on multiple occasions.
Bridge of Spies is all about good old-fashioned decency in the thick of the Cold War. Spielberg trades in historical nuance for straightforward moral clarity about doing what is right no matter the circumstances. That’s what Americans are supposed to do. Supposed to, at least.
Bridge of Spies
Director: Steven Spielberg
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Based on a true story, Bridge of Spies centers on James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer in Brooklyn who’s asked to defend Colonel Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is a suspected Russian spy, and the film opens on him as he goes about his daily routine. He’s a good artist, though he uses his talents as subterfuge in order to get around the city and receive messages from his superiors. The opening minutes of the film are without dialogue, and showcase some nice bits of spycraft. Rylance remains stonefaced but vigilant.
Donovan’s expected to deliver a mere token defense for Abel. He’s a speed bump en route to a commie’s execution. Donovan’s a principled litigator, however, and he wants to extend Constitutional protections to the captured spy. Donovan even urges the judge to avoid the death penalty. A spy of Abel’s caliber–Donovan constantly refers to him as “a good soldier”–would be a worthwhile bargaining chip if the US ever had to negotiate with the Soviets. Donovan’s neighbors and colleagues begin to turn on him for taking a stand.
Casting Tom Hanks as Donovan is a given. There’s an innate trustworthiness about Hanks’ screen presence, and he exudes the kind of everyman likability you’d expect out of your favorite friend or neighbor. At a party, people may ask when Tom’s showing up. Since the early 90s, Hanks has become the go-to common-man good-guy in the mold of Jimmy Stewart; if Bridge of Spies were made decades ago, Stewart would probably play Donovan. (Okay, maybe not. If it were made decades ago the entire crew would be blacklisted and seated before a HUAC hearing.)
Then there’s Mark Rylance as Colonel Abel. His performance is all about the poker face. Colonel Abel’s low-key and could pass as a plain old man, but to the intelligence community, they know what’s up. He plays so dumb that he’s obviously got a lot secrets. There’s a lot to read into Hanks’ and Rylance’s performances when they share the screen together–what’s being said and not said, what they’re saying with looks–but there’s also a kind of mutual respect; not just something lawyer-client based but an admiration for such staunch resoluteness.
Bridge of Spies switches from a courtroom drama to small-scale espionage movie for the last half or two-thirds. US government sends Donovan to negotiate the release of a US soldier named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) who’s being held by the Soviets. Good thing Donovan fought so hard to keep his chip from the chair. And so we go from Brooklyn to Berlin, where the wall has just gone up and a clash between Soviet and East German interests might complicate the deal that Donovan has been sent to broker.
Bridge of Spies tries to braid in two additional threads of narrative over the Donovan-driven and Abel-driven dramas. It’s here that some seams become visible–it’s easy to spot seams in an otherwise handsome film. Powers’ mission helps get across the amount of spying going on between the US and Russia, and it culminates in a daring set piece involving a spy plane, but it doesn’t quite flow with the legal drama unfolding on the ground. At least it has some creative smash cuts and cross cuts.
The film gets much clunkier as we introduce the other thread involving an economics student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who’s suspected of being an American spy in East Germany. It’s introduced and dropped as a narrative expedient–a story for the main story but not a story on its own. It’s almost like a stray movie lost in the bigger one, and some of the brief drama involving Pryor and his girlfriend are never touched on again.
Even with the seams and loose threads, Bridge of Spies is steadily carried by Hanks’ amiability and Spielberg and his craft. Once we’re back with Donovan, the film regains its footing (and handsomeness).
I sense some audiences might be put off by the film’s high-mindedness. Conservatives in particular may take issue with Donovan’s heroic idealism even if it’s so earnestly American. There’s one speech Donovan makes before the Supreme Court that’s Capraesque bordering on cloying. Even if taken directly from a transcript, the speech seems like it’s directed at a contemporary audience rather than the Justices of the 1950s.
Donovan speaks about the heart of the country and the fundaments of the Constitution and how it ought to be applied even to America’s enemies. The contemporary read is not about Soviets but soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq who are detained in Guantanamo. Spielberg even seems to offer an indictment of prisoner abuse by contrasting Powers in a Soviet prison with Abel in an American one. The appeal is clear and you don’t even have to look that hard–we’re Americans, and we should be good even to our enemies.
This kind of black-and-white appeal to good old-fashioned American decency works in movies since it’s about an abstraction of Jimmy Stewart America or Gregory Peck America–a kind of aspirational Platonic form of what people in America can strive to be. (Ronald Reagan’s America is probably more pervasive. Make of that what you will.) In that way, Bridge of Spies shares some Constitutional connective tissue with Amistad and Lincoln, while also being a kind of post-war counterpart to Saving Private Ryan–it’s a mission to bring our boys home. It’s hokey, but the takeaway is to be the best the country has to offer, or at least to try.
If that corny idealism isn’t good old-fashioned American decency, I don’t know what is.