Bridge of Spies, 2015
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture
During the Cold War, a Russian Spy named Rudolf Abel is arrested in America, a US Fighter pilot is shot down over the Soviet Union, and an American student in Berlin is arrested for espionage. James Donovan, an American lawyer, is first tasked to defend Russian Abel in court, But then, he’s also tasked by the CIA with going to Berlin to negotiate the release of the two American men, in exchange for Rudolf Abel.
I have a confession to make. I don’t really care for Tom Hanks. For whatever reason, there are only a small handful of films that I enjoy that Hanks has been in. For the most part, I just don’t ever care for the movies he chooses to be in. There’s just something about him that I really don’t care for. So I knew going into this movie, between the Spielberg sentimentality it was bound to have and the casting of Tom Hanks, this didn’t look remotely interesting to me.
The story itself is incredibly interesting. Donovan is tasked with defending Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy, and actually takes his job seriously. Everyone around him says it’s an “American honour” to show the world that American doesn’t just convict spies without a fair trial. Yet, this seems to be what everyone around Donovan wants. But Donovan does his job to the best he can, which makes him an incredibly hated person. After Rudolf is convicted, he travels to East Berlin to try to negotiate the release of an American US fighter pilot (who was already sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Soviets). But again, Donovan wants to his job more than well, and also argues for the release of an innocent American student who was studying in Berlin. It’s definitely a fascinating story, but Spielberg’s take on this really didn’t do much for me.
My problem with a lot of Spielbergs more recent films is his sentimentality. Similar to Lincoln, we have another portrait of a man, during a troubled time in America. And like Lincoln, the movie likes to get overly patriotic and sentimental about it’s main character. James Donovan was a great American during a time when America was under threat. Donovan rose above and went above and beyond for his fellow Americans, but also treated Rudolf Abel as an actual human, putting up a real fight for him, and not just letting him get convicted without a fair trial. While I do recognize that James Donovan is not nearly as well-known as Abraham Lincoln, I did feel like the film was too heavy-handed in telling me how great an American Donovan was. The music would swell with some very patriotic melodies when it wanted us to feel patriotic. There were contrasting shots that were incredibly heavy-handed about how much better a place America was than the Soviet Union. These are all things the audience is full able to come to the conclusion of without Spielberg smashing us over the head with these ideas. Every so often, this movie just felt a little too “True Story” Disney movie.
While this may sound like I didn’t like the movie, that’s not necessarily true. Bridge of Spies tells a captivating story in a flawed manner. Tom Hanks is very Tom Hanks here, and Mark Rylance gives a very nuanced and subtle performance as Rudolf Abel, playing this close to the chest. As well, the art and set direction is very well done here. It’s a beautifully made film, shot to perfection, and well-acted but it was just too heavy-handed for me to really get behind fully.