Film Review: Bridge of Spies

In Steven Spielberg’s dramatically inert, fact-based Cold War thriller, Tom Hanks plays an insurance lawyer asked to defend a Soviet spy before being sucked into a dangerous Berlin prisoner exchange.
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Bridge of Spies sits at the lit-fuse junction of Cold War paranoia, the legal ethics of treating enemy combatants, the dividing of Berlin, and nuclear holocaust. But the work of three screenwriters—Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen—one of the era’s most astute directors of thoughtful popular cinema, and even Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks operating in pitch-perfect sync can’t wrestle this incredible, fact-based but ungainly moralistic spy saga into shape.

The calm at the center of this storm is Rudolf Abel (Rylance), a monkish little man arrested by federal agents at the film’s start in 1957 and charged with being a Soviet spy. Since we’re shown Abel dealing with dead drops and coded messages, his guilt is never in doubt. The only question is who will be foolish enough to represent him. Spielberg layers this part of the story in A-bomb paranoia as a way of reminding us that since most Americans assumed the Soviets were about thirty seconds away from covering the country in mushroom clouds, they had little patience for giving spies like Abel a fair trial.

The unlucky man selected by the Bar Association to represent Abel is James Donovan (Hanks). A Brooklyn insurance attorney, he hasn’t worked a criminal trial in years and isn’t crazy about defending the most hated man in America. Still, he takes the case, civic duty and all, and is instantly approached by the CIA, who want to know everything Abel is saying and roll their eyes at attorney-client privilege. The more he is pushed to betray his client and his lawyerly duties, and the more the judge signals that the trial is just a formality, the more Donovan digs in his heels.

It helps that he finds Abel fine company. Anybody would. Rylance plays Abel as another of his slow-moving, resolute and resonant, deeply wry characters. Gentle and witty, Abel doesn’t seem the type to raise his voice if his clothes were on fire. (It makes sense that when this story was first being developed decades ago, Alec Guinness was tapped for Abel; Rylance is maybe the one actor since Guinness who can make quietude sing so clearly.) He reads to Donovan—another of Hanks’ decent and deadpan average Joes just trying to do the right thing while surrounded by amoral dullards—like a honorable soldier deserving of fair treatment.

There are echoes here of more blatant recent film analogies to the post-9/11 debate over civil liberties and torture, with Donovan holding the line and declaiming about American fair play being the best way to show the Soviets what America is made of. Although the knotty legalisms and ethical arguments would make this part of the film seem like slow going, Hanks, Rylance and Spielberg make it into something that snaps and crackles with modern relevance, particularly once Donovan begins paying the price for doing his job too passionately. Spielberg can still be a dangerous filmmaker when he gets his hands on Big Ideas. But in the early stretches of Bridge of Spies he shows a cannier ability to twist those ideas into a captivating story. In other words, things have improved since the days of Amistad.

What can account, then, for the film turning into such a drag? Donovan thinks he’s done with his patriotic volunteer work, only to have his government ask for one more service. During the first section, the film slips in glances of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) preparing to fly his supposedly untouchable U-2 spy plane over the USSR. It’s a long build toward explaining why Donovan gets another assignment. This time he is sent to Berlin just as the Wall is going up to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Still steaming over Abel’s show trial, when he finds out about an American student being held in East Berlin, Donovan takes the negotiations in a different direction than the CIA intended.

There is no reason why this part of the film, filled with dangerous reversals and espionage shell games, shouldn’t crackle with le Carré-esque tension. But as Donovan negotiates in one smoky Berlin room after another, Bridge of Spies starts losing air like a balloon pricked by a needle. Even a climactic meeting on a snow-covered bridge braced by snipers and barbed wire can’t find a pulse. There are many culprits for the film’s failure, from Thomas Newman’s simpering score to the screenplay’s many missteps—the offhand comment that Donovan was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials makes him seem far less a babe in the woods, and not bothering to even briefly touch on what secrets Abel stole, or why and how, seems like an oversight. (This is now the second film in a row after last year’s Unbroken that the Coen Brothers have scripted in a strictly connect-the-dots fashion.)

But in the end, Bridge of Spies never locates its story, compelling civil-liberties argument or not. Rylance’s hangdog Zen can get you pretty far, as can tense nuclear-tinged confrontations in grey Warsaw Pact surroundings. But just stringing these events together and topping them off with a typically Speilbergian five minutes of excess treacle isn’t enough to make a film.

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