Filmsy Reviews: Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance.
Quick Summary: An insurance lawyer must go behind the Iron Curtain to negotiate a prisoner exchange.
Rating: Slick. Sly. Stealthy.
Spy. Blackhat. Kingsman: The Secret Service. Mortdecai. Marvel's Ant-Man. Barely Lethal. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The Gunman. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.
You might not have noticed this because Hollywood studios have a very subtle and secretive way to go about these sorts of things, but 2015 has been witness to a fair share of movies with spies as the central characters. Short of a new Spy Kids and a new Austin Powers, looks like everyone wants to put out a spy film out there, in addition to all the stuff that's already on TV (Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, The Americans, Archer, Person of Interest, etc), not to mention the highly anticipated James Bond movie Spectre.
It's such a weird dichotomy that we complain so much about living in a world where privacy is a very rare commodity and virtually non-existent, while at the same time we worship the very people who made this Orwellian nightmare into a reality. And while Steven Spielberg's take on the genre is much more nuanced and realistic, in the end it also contributes to glamorize a line of work which consists mainly on tapping phones, reading our e-mails, taking clandestine photos of our homes and digging through our garbage.
Real-life spies are basically TMZ paparazzi, except with a soul.
That said, Bridge of Spies doesn't really focus on the international intriguing world of debonair martini drinking fops, nor the creepy and mundane routines of eavesdropping trash divers. This thriller, starring Tom Hanks and co-written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, deals a lot more with bureaucracy, court drama, nasty diplomacy and the clandestine politics that were behind the real espionage and intelligence-gathering that kept the Cold War from ever thawing.
Bridge of Spies is inspired by real life events, which we know it's Hollywood code for "we made most of this stuff up to make it more cinematic, even though the true story might have been just as interesting, if not more, but we think audiences are stupid and we are lazy, so enjoy".
Or, if the Coen brothers are involved, it means "we're just messing with you".
Going into this movie, I really didn't know what to expect. Spielberg is a very versatile director who's successfully dabbled into all sorts of genres, from epic war movies to coming of age stories about friendly aliens, as well as historical dramas, sci-fi, action-adventure and comedy, not to mention setting up the stage for summer blockbusters. Tom Hanks, who's often Spielberg's collaborator, in addition to being one of the most charismatic actors of his generation and successful producer on his own, also happens to have a pretty wide acting range, effortlessly going from drama to comedy, sometimes in the same scene. If we throw into that equation the pretty acid, witty black humor that characterizes the Coens, a movie called Bridge of Spies could have gone all sorts of ways in those hands, from a revenge fantasy in the spirit of movies like Taken, to a dark reimagining of the Naked Gun series where Hanks is a sleeper agent à la Jason Bourne, or even a live action version of MAD's Spy vs Spy.
Featuring Jim Hanks as the black spy.
As it stands, Bridge of Spies is none of those things. It doesn't even feature that many spies, or, for that matter, that many bridges, like those of Madison County, for example. Set in the late 1950s, the first half deals with the capture and trial of the real-life KGB agent using the pseudonym Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), part of a network of operatives in New York City involved in what would be known as the Hollow Nickel Case. Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, the lawyer who was assigned to represent Abel. Donovan is a very idealistic attorney, and even though his background is in insurance law, he has a very high sense of duty and respect for due process. Once it becomes clear that Abel is not getting a fair trial, since the whole thing is just for show to the Soviets, Donovan doubles down on his efforts to give him the best defense possible, even if that comes at a very high price when he's alienated at his place of work and with the government, while his family becomes the target of attacks by the mass hysteria and disinformation of the Red Scare.
The second part of the movie gets a little more into the ugly business of international politics, information wars and backdoor deals. If this movie was novelized, the first part would read like John Grisham, while the second feels more like John le Carré, with pages from Tom Clancy (think Jack Ryan, not Sam Fisher) and Aaron Sorkin scattered all around. For the record, if you think I'm revealing too much of the plot, I'm not spoiling anything that's not on every advertisement for the movie. The title itself is a reference to the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, where prisoner exchanges took place regularly during the Cold War.
Exactly like this. Exchanged prisoners used to stop in the middle to make out and cry on each other's arms.
After exhausting every legal resource, including the Supreme Court, Donovan and Abel finally catch a break when the CIA tells Donovan they have a use for Donovan's negotiating skills and his client's value as a bargaining chip with the Soviets. When an American spy plane is shot down over USSR territory and its pilot is taken captive, both countries agree a prisoner exchange would be mutually beneficial, except they can't really sit down to negotiate since that would require official acknowledgment of their spying activities. Donovan, who had foreseen a similar scenario, is chosen to be an unofficial broker, and agrees to it in order to clear his name, and also because he has grown to respect Rudolf Abel for his stoicism and his refusing to reveal any secrets despite his life hanging in the balance. East Germany is to serve as a mediator for the USSR, so Donovan travels to Berlin during the time that the infamous wall was being built. While there, he also learns the GDR government themselves are holding yet another American prisoner, a student who was caught on the wrong side of the wall.
Donovan's prerogative is then to choose what is best for his client, what is best for his country, and saving the life of someone caught between the lines. He must find a way to do the right thing, even if doing so goes against the instructions he was given by the government and endangers the very frail peace between the great world powers. And all because of U2.
Thanks for nothing, Bono!
Much like the tactics of James B. Donovan, whose real life efforts resulted in the release of thousands of spies and political prisoners (including those who were captured after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba), Bridge of Spies is a very efficient movie. Despite being over two hours long, not a minute of it feels unnecessary. The photograph and sets manage to reflect what feels like a very accurate portrait of the times and places they're supposed to represent, especially the repressive East Berlin, and that damn wall, which took David Hasselhoff and the power of rock n roll to finally tear down. The script does not rely too heavily on exposition to convey their message, and the acting is very on point. Even though Tom Hanks is great on his role as the idealistic and heroic lawyer, Mark Rylance's performance is what makes the movie, as he says too much while speaking very little, and you totally buy his character as this very inconspicuous introverted artist holding secrets even to himself. There are plenty of other actors involved in this movie who have a decent amount of screen time, and they all do a fairly good job, but none of those roles really stand out that much in comparison to the leads.
If there are any flaws to this movie, is that, just like a good spy, it's efficient, but also kind of unremarkable. This movie probably will not stand out as one of Spielberg's finest, or as an iconic role for Tom Hanks, nor will it be the Big Lebowski of the next generation. However, it is a good watch regardless, as its surreptitious climbing at the box office proves. Bridge of Spies is a good option for those who, like me, don't enjoy that much the cheap horror movies that inundate the theater screens during Halloween season.
Care to guess what my Halloween costume was?
(I went as the Thing from FF. And yes, my date was an Invisible Girl)
So, what else is out there?
Bridge of Spies might fill in the spy-shaped hole in your wall while we wait for 007: SPECTRE. But if you've already marathoned through the 20+ Bond movies and are still craving for international intrigue and mystery, here are a few more recommendations:
Burn After Reading (2008)
Spy romp, sort of underrated, but on par with anything else the Coens have put out there. While you're at it, also check out the Fargo TV show. It is most excellent.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Out of all the movies directed by Spielberg, it so happens that the closest to a spy film he's ever made also features Tom Hanks, in pursuit of a very slippery con man. Oh, well. It's a good film, and apparently it's been made into a musical too.
Charlie Wilson's War (2007)
While technically not a spy film, this is actually the closest entry on the list to the themes of Bridge of Spies. Backdoor negotiations and politics behind the proxy wars with the Soviets, loosely based on real life events. Hanks even plays a very similar role, except the tone of this movie is more comedic.
The Man with One Red Shoe (1985)
Spy film: check. Starring Tom Hanks: check. Mistaken identity comedy: check. Incredibly dated 80s cheesiness: double check. But hey, at least it's not the one where Dungeons and Dragons is an evil game invented by Satan... what was that called again? That's right, Splash!
Another crazy affair inspired by real life events, another conflict that was resolved with ingenuity and without firing a single bullet. And it put Batfleck on the map as a director.
North by Northwest (1959)
Perhaps Hitchcock's most approachable film. Cary Grant, who was the Tom Hanks of his time, is mistaken for a special agent and must embark on a cross-country thrilling adventure filled with danger and mystery. The plane chasing sequence is one of the most recognizable scenes in cinema history.
Not quite as recognizable as this, though.
A big thank you to Carp for the TMZ gun barrel pic!
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