Movie: Bridge of spies.
Genre: Drama, History
Director: Steven Spielberg
Actors: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Sebastian Koch, Will Rogers
Time: 141 minutes
It might be hard to believe, but this coming December Steven Spielberg will celebrate his 69th birthday. It means that his next movie (he is currently working on two simultaneously) will be released when he’ll be 70+. “Bridge of spies” comes three years after “Lincoln”, and even though the story is tighter and less epic, conceptually this is a direct sequel.
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Spielberg keeps roaming the American history seeking (and finding) classic heroic characters who see the world in black and white, determined to do the moral and right thing while the entire system around them pressuring for compromise on fifty shades of gray.
“Lincoln” described the bureaucratic struggle led by president Abraham Lincoln, at the height of the American civil war, to pass the bill to abolish slavery. “Bridge of spies” (based on true events), takes place in 1957, the height of the cold war, and the main character is an attorney named Jim Donovan (Hanks), in charge of negotiations in a prisoner exchange deal between the US government, the USSR and East Germany.
The goal was to retrieve a soviet spy captured in Brooklyn, in return for an American pilot shot down over Russian territory, while East Germany will release an student arrested without proper papers on the wrong side of the Berlin wall they just finished building.
Sounds complicated? It is. Especially for attorney Jim Donovan, who specializes in insurance claims, until he is asked to defend Colonel Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), arrested at the beginning of the movie after living in the USA for years as soviet mole. Script will not revile how Abel was exposed, and the nature of his espionage work, since the plot is in a hurry to get to court where a show trial awaits for Abel, after he will be condemned and executed.
That is, of course, before Donovan steps in and decides to take his job as a defense attorney seriously and protect his client from the electric chair. That move, of course, marks him and his family as traitors. The script gives no background for Donovan’s character. No old sin he is trying to atone for, or a deep psychological tier to explain why he is willing to risk not only everything he achieved in life but also the safety of his wife and children. He is simply a good guy, period. And who will you cast as the ultimate good guy?
Tom Hanks proves, again, why he is considered by many to be the legitimate heir of Cary Grant. Like that iconic actor, he was born to portray the silent hero, who wins the fight not with fists or guns but with the power of faith in the righteousness of his cause and his ability to stand his ground (at a certain point Abel will refer to Donovan as “the standing man”). Hanks will also lead a courtroom scene, where he will deliver a superb idealistic speech, and here comes the twist: at that point the movie is just beginning.
Spielberg is still the greatest film medium wizard of our generation, so you will know every movie he directs will present a superb photography, be meticulous in every detail of set and costume design, and serve the viewers with the highest standards. In “Lincoln” he presented lobbying and white house back rooms paperwork as a legitimate storyline, and in “Bridge of spies” he is trying to direct a thriller without thrills and action with no actions. In other words, hold the viewer constantly anticipating the next move, while in fact not much happens on the screen accept lots of characters going in and stepping out of rooms speaking with different accents (some scenes in the movie are spoken in German with no subtitles).
This is the finest hour for Ethan Coen (brother of Joel, and one of America’s greatest film makers to date), who co-wrote a script that is not trying to ease the viewer but in fact gets him confused again and again. In that, the script sets the viewer inside the mind of lead character Jim Donovan. Only one who really want these three people to make it home alive (Rudolph Abel to the USSR, and student Fredric Pryor and pilot Francis Powers to the USA), and almost loose himself in the impossible bureaucracy of the conflicted super power governments. That is another merit for Spielberg as a storyteller.
Even though the movie seems very patriotic at first, it describes the characters of American spies and diplomats in a light which is just as paranoid and ridiculous as their Russians and Germans colleagues. There is one sane Tom Hanks, a Russian spy you can’t help but fall in love with, and a mixture of nuts. Like Alice in wonderland with CIA and KGB agents.
There is something slow and old-fashioned in the directing and editing of “Bridge of spies”. It is not clear whether Spielberg was creating a tribute to classic 60’s and 70’s spy movies, or finally adjusted himself to the grandpa he sees in the mirror every day. Either way younger viewers, used to fast editing and restless camera movements, might find the slow pace of events difficult to digest.
Spielberg is aware of the fact he created a film for 40+ movie goers, an almost instinct animal in modern Hollywood, and wisely maneuvered within a modest 40 million dollars budget, making sure “Bridge of spies” will not become a box office flop. That is just another proof that Steven Spielberg, even in medium shape, is still smarter and more skilled movie maker than most of his colleagues at the top of their game.
In short: slow, meticulous and nostalgic. Tom Hanks is superb.