Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bridge of Spies

3/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepard, Austin Stowell, Mikhail Gorevoy, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Will Rogers

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence and Brief Strong Language

Even to people who aren't encyclopedias of movie knowledge, Steven Spielberg is a known name.  That's because he's been the man behind some of cinemas finest (and most bankable) achievements.  The list of beloved films he has directed is incredible: "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," "Jurassic Park," "Minority Report," "Munich," "E.T.," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jaws" (not one of his better films, in my opinion).  But he hasn't made anything truly memorable for the better part of a decade (while there are those who believe that "Lincoln" was a return to form, I'm not one of them).  So the question is whether or not his newest film, the Cold War dramatic thriller "Bridge of Spies," reverses his slump.

The answer is...sort of.  "Bridge of Spies" is a good film, and is well worth seeing, but no one is going to compare it to any of his greatest works.  It's too long, a little confusing, and not especially cinematic.  Spielberg has always been a master manipulator, but aside from a few moments here and there, there is little of the magic that has made him such a success.

"Bridge of Spies" takes place in 1957 New York City.  A quiet little man named Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is going about his business when he is arrested and charged with being a Russian spy.  To prove they can walk the walk and not just talk the talk, he is given a trial.  Abel is assigned a lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks) to defend him.  Donovan is an insurance lawyer, although since he has argued criminal cases in the past, he agrees to take the case.  However, everyone knows its just for show; even the judge (Dakin Matthews in a very effective performance) assumes he's guilty.  Despite Donovan's best attempts, Abel is found guilty.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has a new spy plane they want to use to take pictures of Soviet targets from 70,000 feet in the air.  They select Francis Gary Powers (Stowell) to be the first man up with specific instructions that he is not to be caught (they give him two ways to kill himself should the need arise).  However, his plane is shot down and he doesn't commit suicide.  Now he's in Russian hands, and the U.S. Government wants him back before he can divulge any secrets.  The Russians are thinking the same thing about Abel, so they suggest a trade.  The U.S. government asks Donovan to negotiate the trade, without any public acknowledgement by his own government.  Then he finds out that there's a new wrinkle that complicates matters even further: a Yale grad student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) has been caught on the wrong side just as the Berlin Wall is completed, and is accused of being a spy.  The U.S. tells Donovan to concentrate on getting Powers, and that they will get Pryor later (right).  But Donovan takes it upon himself to make a three way trade, since the Russians have Powers and East Germany has Pryor.

It sounds really complicated, and it is, but Spielberg takes his time showing each piece of the puzzle and making sure we know who is who and how they fit.  The long speeches where the details are laid out can be confusing, but it's nothing major.  However, he takes too much time.  Once we know that Abel is being given a show trial, we don't need to see Donovan's appeal to the Supreme Court.  It's meant to be a break between the scenes with Powers, but they should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Spielberg is as much an actor's director as anyone, and he gets good performances from his cast.  This is his fourth film with Tom Hanks, and it's clear that the two work well with each other.  Hanks is quite good as the guy who would rather do the right thing even if it's harder and riskier.  It works because few actors are more likable than Tom Hanks (could he even play a bad guy?).  Mark Rylance is also good as the diminuitive Abel, although he doesn't have enough chemistry with Hanks for their relationship to have the payoff that Spielberg wants it to.  Austin Stowell, who was stiff in "Dolphin Tale," is effective because the part doesn't require much range.  Special mention has to go to Mikhail Gorevoy, who plays Donovan's counterpart.  He's very good.  I don't know if this was intentional, but he sounds a lot like Peter Lorre when he talks.

The biggest problem with the film is that it's not very cinematic.  It's all talking, save for the plane being shot down and a surprisingly disturbing shooting (which doesn't really belong in the film).  True, films based off of plays can be quite effective ("Frost/Nixon" is one of many examples), but Spielberg has transformed this into an epic of sorts, a genre in which it really doesn't fit.  The script (co-written by the Coen Brothers, if you can believe that) doesn't fit the approach.

Still, a lot of people are going to see this because of the names on the marquee, and I wouldn't dare try to stop them.  It may have its problems, but I don't regret seeing it.

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