Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies starts off deceptively, with the opening titles and the texted prologue in a simplistic font that mirrors the lean and straightforward approach to the early part of the story. In its extended first act, the film rushes forward excitingly. But when the scope broadens, things peter out like water exiting an unattended hose to splash uselessly on the pavement.
Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an attorney who mostly handles insurance cases but finds himself being asked to represent a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, perfectly employing a quiet storm approach similar to his recent, revelatory turn in the miniseries Wolf Hall), who has been captured in New York. That criminal case and the friction of Donovan trying to actually do a good job while his country encourages him to only appear to be doing a good job makes up the first and best part of Bridge of Spies. The longer section that follows, in which Donovan negotiates with Soviets and East Germans the exchange of Abel for American prisoners, is a serviceable take on the “everyman becomes a spy” subgenre but suffers in comparison to its preceding chapters.
Two of the cowriters on Bridge of Spies are Ethan and Joel Coen and, unlike last year’s Unbroken, the film very much bears their mark. The patter of the dialogue pings like a well-tuned guitar. A scene in which Donovan rebukes a prying CIA agent (Scott Shepherd, delightful) in a well-appointed bar during a driving rainstorm absolutely sings with purpose and poetry. The neo-classicism of Spielberg in the 1970s and 80s (Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark) is a forebear to the Coens’ postmodernism (Barton Fink, even Intolerable Cruelty) and Spielberg appears at times to be returning their respect by shooting things the way they might have. The camera pushes and pans archly during important moments. A bit in which spy plane pilots marvel at the gigantic photo lenses depending from the underside of their planes at a tilt is presented in a low, Dutch angle shot with a very wide lens, jokingly inverting the way these surveillance cameras might see things. In general, there’s a very Coen-like sense of irony to Bridge of Spies being a true story that constantly reminds you it’s a movie. Of course, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski still manages to fit in a couple of his own trademark shots of people standing against bright windows or lights.
It’s not all Coens-by-proxy, though. There’s a Spielbergian clarity of purpose – an absence of ambiguity – to Donovan’s choices and where he stands on the moral spectrum. His belief in the fundamental truths of America and its dedication to freedom and fairness is heartwarming and should appeal equally to constitutional conservatives on the right and civil liberties progressives on the left. Art does not function at its best when it’s instructing the audience on how to feel but, still, the overall message that our national identity is more important than our national security is a worthy one at a time when we still can’t decide whether to treat terrorists as criminals or combatants. Spielberg drives his point home with a brief scene showing how American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is not afforded a trial after being captured by the Soviets.
Bridge of Spies is, in a way, two movies and it’s a shame how much Spielberg loses momentum in the longer second version of it. The legal drama at the beginning – despite the familiar tropes of the good guy being targeted and scoffed at by ignorant folks who would prefer he do what’s easiest to what’s right – is where the goods are. When the movie kicks into spy gear, it becomes of a series of hit or miss scenes. Hanks excels when Donovan is allowed to negotiate but any time he has to bear witness to the awful realities of life in East Germany, it feels rote.
There are attempts made to connect the two identities of Bridge of Spies. The most clever is the way Donovan develops a cold while in East Germany, causing him to repeatedly blow his nose in the same manner Abel did when we first saw him intercepting encrypted messages back in Brooklyn. But the other choices are more conspicuous, like a story from Abel’s youth whose inevitable callback is telegraphed from the moment we hear it. It’s too bad Spielberg didn’t learn one of the Coens’ most important lessons, which is to get in and get out without expending any unnecessary energy.