Bridge of Spies (2015)

Spielberg. Is there ANYTHING ‘The Man’ can’t do?! With the notable exception of maybe WW2- themed slapstick and satire of a grossly overblown nature (looking at YOU, ‘1941’!), Steven Spielberg is still the quintessential ‘director’. He’s SO steeped in the culture and technology of film-making that it’s rather baffling how truly masterful his ‘eye’ and direction are…and really, always have been. That he can take a story that dedicates a significant chunk of it’s 141 minute run-time to courtroom drama and extended sequences of propulsive and compelling dialogue (written by the Coen Brothers!) and make them thrilling is ample proof of that. When I first heard of ‘Bridge of Spies’, back when it was known as ‘St. James Place’ (thank gawd they changed that pedestrian title!), I’ll admit that my excitement level didn’t shoot THAT high, for some reason…and much to my surprise. Spielberg and Tom Hanks had crafted three very noteworthy films together, prior to this (‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998), ‘Catch Me if You Can’ (2002), and ‘The Terminal’ (2004)), and the idea of them tackling THIS time period and THIS incident intrigued me, as I’m an avid reader of military and Cold War history. Having said that, I still don’t know why I wasn’t frothing at the mouth to see this one. It could be that it had comparatively little media fanfare, when considered in comparison with other Spielberg blockbusters of Yesteryear. It was also given an odd release date of October 4th. I always associate his films with either Summer ‘Tent-pole’ status or Winter Oscar ‘hopeful’ status…never a seemingly unceremonious ‘dump’ sometime mid-fall. So I wasn’t sure what to make of THAT. The thing is, even if some of his films are less-than-perfect (‘1941’), or not completely rewatchable for purely entertainment purposes (‘The Color Purple’ (1985) or ‘Amistad’ (1997)), you KNOW that they’re going to be immaculately well-crafted. At this point…that’s just a ‘given’. It’s been that way going right back to the initial release of ‘Duel’, WAY back in 1971. So when ‘Bridge of Spies’ hit the local cinema two short weeks ago, I knew that, while it may not turn out to be his BEST FILM EVER, it would still be another high-quality example of masterful film-making. I penciled it in for a rainy and grey Sunday afternoon…and found I wasn’t wrong.
‘Bridge of Spies’ takes place in 1957, at a particularly tense and frightening point in the Cold War between the United States and The Soviet Union. The ‘national character’ of the U.S., at this time, is seeing communists at every turn and it seems that nuclear holocaust is only a matter of weeks away…if not days. Children in school are being taught the sure-fire method of surviving atomic war through the tried and true technique of ‘Duck and Cover’, and there is fear and paranoia everywhere. That being said, occasionally the FBI would get lucky…like they do with ‘Rudolph Abel’ (Mark Rylance). ‘Abel’ is an undercover Soviet spy and has, unbeknownst to him, fallen into the cross-hairs of the Feds. After a tense game of ‘cat n mouse’ (which is energetically shot and edited), the FBI spring their trap and capture the elderly painter. Despite the substantial evidence supporting the Prosecution, it’s decided at higher levels to show the commies, and The World, that the American’s truly were beyond reproach, and they do this by granting the spy a fair trial (instead of just a summary execution to satiate the public’s rabid, xenophobic blood-lust), as required by the laws of the United States. This introduces us to ‘James Donovan’ (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer with a solid record in other, past legal matters. It’s felt that he’s the man to incur that wrath of an entire nation and defend the clearly guilty agent….as required by the law. This makes ‘Donovan’ something of a pariah…with the hostility even resulting in several bullets being shot through the front of his families house. But ‘Donovan’ is a man of principle and honor, and sets about doing exactly what his duty requires, and does so with admirable conviction. At the same time, the C.I.A. enters into a clandestine partnership with the U.S. Air Force and begins performing EXTREMELY high-altitude reconnaissance missions over armed Soviet territory. It’s during one of these secret U2 spy-plane over-flights that Pilot ‘Gary Powers’ (Austin Stowell) is shot out of the sky by a Soviet Surface-to-Air missile. He is subsequently captured (after failing to commit suicide, as originally ordered), and put on very public trial for espionage. ‘Donovan’, his legal work with ‘Abel’ since completed, is brought back into the fold when the chance for a negotiated ‘prisoner swap’ comes up; ‘Abel’ in exchange for ‘Powers’. ‘Donovan’ finds himself in Berlin, a city being literally cut in two by the opposing ideologies of the East and the West, and by the resulting construction of The Berlin Wall. It’s against this dreary background that the hushed negotiations and spygames show themselves to the homesick lawyer.
‘Bridge of Spies’ was undeniably solid. Spielberg strikes again! The first thing I noticed was the awe-inspiring attention to Production Design. This WAS the 1950’s…a lot more than that silly bullshit in ‘Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’. The scenes taking place in the U.S. were rich in authentic-looking detail, but it’s the portion set in Berlin (especially East Berlin) that really crackled. We see the gritty creation of The Berlin Wall, a sinister backdrop to the secret dealings and a physical representation of the Russian’s and American’s inability to see eye-to-eye at that dangerous time. Like other historical moments in other Spielberg films, it’s treated with due respect and in just a few well-composed shots and edits, I felt the desperation of the situation. The fear and anguish of the refugees trying to get to the West before it’s too late, or being separated from loved ones by the brick, barbed wire and machine gun towers that were being erected through the centre of the city. In some respects, I was reminded of the terrible and gut-wrenching ‘clearing of the Krakow Ghetto’ sequence from Spielberg’s own ‘Schindler’s List’ (1993). Unpleasant stuff…but brilliantly realized. Another sequence that was well done, and was definitely a lure to get me into the theatre to see this, was the shooting down of ‘Gary Power’s U2 spy-plane. I’ve read a couple books on this incident and I always wondered how it would play on The Big Screen, under the right direction. While I do feel that the whole sequence could’ve (should’ve) been longer and more drawn-out, what I got was pretty cool…as we get to experience the missile strike and high-altitude disintegration of the glider-like jet first-hand. The problem was…it ended too soon, in my opinion. We cut away as ‘Powers’ drifts toward Earth, swinging below his parachute as the smoking debris spirals down around him. I’d hoped to see a bit more action on the ground, where he’s actually captured by Soviet security forces, but they kept it short n sweet. Admittedly though, it felt a little choppy…especially for a Spielberg film. I would’ve liked some scene extensions where we, as the audience, could’ve had time to marvel at the high-altitude view and remarkable achievement of such ballsy and record-breaking flying and spying. We do spend a lot of time dealing with the captured Soviet spy ‘Abel’, but only about half the time (if that) on the plight of ‘Powers’ and an American kid named ‘Frederick Pryor’, who was captured by the East Germans as he tried to get his East German girlfriend to the West, whom ‘Donovan’ eventually also strives to free. A bit more even coverage, plot-wise, would’ve gone a long way. Spielberg is a director known for getting ‘final cut’ on his films and has almost never released a ‘Directors’ or ‘Extended’ cut of one of his films (‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ is the only one that comes to mind). Hell, even Deleted Scenes from his movies, for that matter have been ‘off the menu’…which sucks. Having said that, it does feel like there was more in a previous, longer cut, but it was removed, no doubt to preserve an acceptable (and more profitable) run-time. If that’s the case, the pacing did suffer a bit as a result.
One thing that didn’t suffer was Spielberg’s ‘changing of the guard’, where his standard music composer was concerned. Going back to ‘The Sugarland Express’ (1974), Spielberg and John Williams collaboration has worked magnificently, with Picture and Music complimenting each other beautifully…even all these years later. However, this time around, there was a scheduling conflict, and Williams wasn’t able to take the reins on the score this time. Spielberg then turned to accomplished composer Thomas Newman (‘Skyfall’ ), who’s film scores for the films of Sam Mendes, especially ‘American Beauty’, have really caught my ear. While it could be argued that the score here was Williams-like, it was different enough that I noticed…and approved. It made me wonder how other Spielberg films may have played, had he not been so slavishly devoted to the admittedly fantastic scores of John Williams for pretty much EVERYTHING he’s ever directed for The Big Screen.
Being a Spielberg film, I’m sure that there’s MUCH more that I could blather on about, but all in all, ‘Bridge of Spies’ is another successful and masterfully-crafted film, from one of the best movie directors of our time, tackling an interesting and intriguing incident in Cold War history. Is it his best film? No. MANY others in his filmography beat it as a contender for THAT title. This is one of his movies, like ‘Amistad’ (1997) or ‘War Horse’ (2011), that will be forgotten among his other notable titles, but will remind you of it’s quality and his skill behind the camera when / if you rewatch it. It boasts an impeccable production design, top notch acting by an accomplished cast, snappy, ‘period’-appropriate dialogue, gorgeous cinematography / editing and a stirring film score that actually benefited from John Williams absence, in my humble opinion. And there’s even a couple sequences that are genuinely thrilling…to help balance out the courtroom drama and ‘cloak n dagger’ intrigue. Is it Required Viewing on The Big Screen? Probably not. A few scenes and shots certainly do benefit from the scope of a theatrical viewing…but you’ll get most of what you need on the small screen as well. Whether you head to the theatre or catch it on Netflix / Blu-ray, this is a good flick…especially if you love either History or the films of Steven Spielberg. Or both.

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