Bridge of Spies: Spies Like Us?
As is the custom here at Deluxe Video Online, February means 27 short days of trying to binge watch all of the Academy Award nominees before the big horse and pony show on the 28th. Last week I was pleasantly surprised by best film nominee Spotlight. This week I have to say that it happened again. While I don’t think Bridge of Spies rises to the level of best film winner, I do think that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have made a thoroughly enjoyable film that is certainly worth the current $5 asking price on Amazon.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Tom Hanks is James Donovan, an insurance attorney who is tapped by the FBI to represent a Soviet spy in court. Donovan quickly discovers that the proceedings are a farce, and his client will be found guilty no matter what he does. As an honorable man, Donovan refuses to just lie down and takes his case all the way to the Supreme Court…where he loses again. His efforts are noticed by the CIA, who have just lost their own spy plane pilot over Soviet occupied Germany. As a last ditch effort to save his client, Donovan agrees to broker a spy swap in Berlin, just as the USSR is building the infamous Berlin Wall and implementing a shoot on sight policy for anyone crossing the border.
Having watched a ton of trailers over the last few years, I’m always interested in how the final product stacks up to the advertisements. Often trailers give too much away, spoiling much of the novelty of a film. Other times, they sell a wildly distorted version of the final film, hoping to sway viewers who wouldn’t normally be interested. One reason I avoided seeing this film in the theaters was because I felt like I pretty much knew how the movie was going to play out just from the promotional material. Bridge of Spies manages to deliver on expectations, but also provide a much larger story than what you’re sold in the blurbs and trailers. Much of the story dwells on the trial of Colonel Abel, the Soviet mole, and on Hanks’ interaction with the legal system, the CIA and the FBI. While Berlin is where the drama is heading, Washington DC is where we get to see the complete hysteria of the Cold War in action, and it gives the film a deeper resonance, especially in light of the charged politics of our own times.
Mr. Hanks Goes to Washington
While it is probably not a shock to anyone, I must say Tom Hanks is excellent in this movie. His character is complex and fully realized, and Hanks imbues him with mannerisms and ticks that make the character feel genuine. This is the kind of role that would be easy to pantomime, easy to make larger than life and play as some grand hero taking on corrupt forces at every turn, but Hanks gives us a very relatable protagonist. The last time I found a lawyer this likable was Jimmy Stewart‘s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. That is probably no coincidence, since like Jimmy Stewart, Tom Hanks is arguably the most talented actor of his generation. He isn’t up for best actor this year, but he’s steadily adding to an airtight case for a lifetime achievement award that is all but inevitable.
One Good Soldier
One expects excellent work from Hanks, but I was also very impressed with Mark Rylance who played Abel, the Soviet spy. He is an idiosyncratic character: he hardly seems to be present in his own life, taking his imprisonment and probable execution as a small annoyance that gets in the way of his painting. Rylance conveys so much character through subtle looks and odd gestures that his role was a real pleasure to watch. That the two leads are so dynamic is essential to the enjoyment of the film, because so few of the other roles feel as well written…
Which leads me to my criticism of the film: besides Donovan and Abel, most of the other pieces of the drama feel one dimensional. The bad judge is a thoroughly bad judge, the heartless CIA agent is thoroughly heartless, the rookie spy pilot is pretty much a plot-point afterthought, a mere incident that gets Donovan involved in a larger drama. Donovan’s family feels like a place holder, just a biographical detail instead of actual characters. Everything that isn’t Donovan or his client is just there to serve Donovan’s story, and they feel like they simply cease to exist when he isn’t looking at them. Much of the menace of Soviet Germany is de-fanged by how comically stereotypical they are. It becomes so overdone that in one scene Hanks is mugged by a street gang not ten seconds after being warned about street gangs. Point made, we never see any of them again, despite Hanks having to travel a lot in East Berlin. Everything in this universe pops into existence when it is convenient to the story and then disappears as soon as it has furthered the plot.
At the end of the day, Bridge of Spies is a good movie that remains entertaining and has two absolutely excellent performances at its heart. The first half of the film that dwells heavily on the court case against Abel is wonderful, and could easily have stood as its own film. The second half descends into some flimsy spy-thriller tropes that are much less interesting than the story about an honorable man trying to get justice for his client. I would recommend this film to anyone who likes Tom Hanks or law dramas, but fans of espionage thrillers won’t find all that much new here. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Gary Oldman is a much better cold war spy thriller if you’re looking to scratch that itch.
As an Oscar contender, I have to wonder if this film didn’t get into the wrong category. Tom Hanks is worth a best actor nod here, but I don’t see this film as being best film material. There’s just a lack of depth here that you expect from a best film nominee. It tells a good story, but I don’t quite feel as if it has told an important story, one with so much resonance that you’ll remember it long after seeing it.