Published on November 13th, 2015 | by Dan Gvozden0
BRIDGE OF SPIES – REVIEW
When Steven Spielberg arrived on the filmmaking scene, he did so with a stick of dynamite. The young filmmaker, whose fresh approach to genre would both create and define American blockbuster moviemaking, would forever change the New Hollywood movement. Now 68 years old, Spielberg has moved away from such popcorny fare, perhaps due to the box office disappointment of The Adventures of Tintin and the critical backlash against Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls.
Instead, his filmography has focused on serious political dramas and other fare that will be considered legacy building, and it seems to have worked. Lincoln was celebrated for its critical and financial success, especially for its Oscar-winning performance from Daniel Day Lewis. Those of us who labeled the film self-serious and a history lesson disguised as entertainment, as I did, are likely dismayed by Spielberg’s pivot away from fun, genre and “marquee” storytelling.
However, in his latest film, Bridge of Spies, Spielberg wastes no time reintroducing himself as America’s favorite and most indelible filmmaker. In a wordless introduction, KGB spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) retrieves a secret message, hidden in a nickel, from Russia to decipher in his artwork-filled Brooklyn apartment. The sequence is genuinely thrilling and built upon Spielberg’s distinctive creeping camera moves. Bridge of Spies has several moments that reach for the pure filmmaking wonder evoked by this visual sequence but none that surpass this striking opening.
As if breezing in from a Frank Capra picture, with all the gusto of the late James Stewart, is frequent Spielberg collaborator Tom Hanks. Hanks is James B. Donovan, a profit-focused insurance lawyer who has been selected, perhaps by drawing the short straw, as the representative of Abel, who has been discovered to be a spy. Hanks, questionably one of Hollywood’s only remaining stars, relies on his good-natured charm to invest audiences in Donovan’s plight. This is thankful, considering that Donovan is never fleshed out beyond his “good guy” credentials.
Donovan decides to represent Abel to his fullest extent, against the desires of the American public and his colleagues. This decision places both him and his family in the crosshairs of those who cannot understand why he would seemingly support the Russians in the shadow of their nuclear threat. Donovan’s moralizing and hard stance in the face of intolerance, as well has his growing relationship with the pragmatic Abel, dominate the first third of the film and create a real rising, old-Hollywood tension that few films are able to capture.
It is when the Feds notice Donovan’s actions and send him to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange that the film begins to lose its edge. Make no mistake: The depiction of snowy Berlin during the erection of the Berlin Wall is always beautiful, particularly because the brilliant Janusz Kaminski photographs it, but it’s all just too perfect, as if this is a feel-good version of history.
Every scene, prop and composition is impeccable, with flawlessly tucked bed sheets, and brilliant light that pours in through the windows and catches the dust in the air; one almost expects an alien tripod to come bursting in. Every character introduced is the purest essence of whatever role he’s been given. Abel isn’t just a painter; he is a Painter, as if the he were the model from which every other painter was ever crafted. Every detail of Bridge of Spies gets this approach, and the film slowly begins to lose its complications and edge.
It is Spielberg’s playful touch and Hank’s charisma that keep Bridge of Spies from becoming a sappy melodrama complete with overdone faux innocence and corniness. Where Bridge of Spies does cross the line into the worst Spielbergian tendencies is during the film’s protracted epilogue. After an emotionally stirring and nail-biting sequence on the titular bridge, exactly where one would expect and desire the film to end, Spielberg keeps the film going. Suddenly, the film plunges deep into obvious symbolism, the kind one would find in a high school novel, and phony sentimentality that completely deflates the previous, complicated emotional moments in favor of an obvious and stunningly simplistic moral statement.