For decades now, Steven Spielberg has been an American institution. When a new movie of his comes out, the press responds with solemnity, as if to say: Here, our most acclaimed director has once again chosen to bestow his talents upon us (on the rare occasion when critics have to pan a Spielberg picture, such as the final “Indiana Jones” movie, they seem to be deeply uncomfortable doing it).
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Indeed, Spielberg’s recent pictures have all been filled with the dignity of the establishment. He was never a cinematic trailblazer, but his early pictures – “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.” and the first “Indiana Jones” films – had a creative enthusiasm and verve, perhaps the signs of youth finding its calling. As Spielberg matured, these qualities gave way to a solidity that is sometimes respectable and sometimes tedious.
His latest offering, “Bridge of Spies,” falls on the respectable side of the spectrum. To be honest, there is something enjoyable in watching such a thoroughly mainstream picture, but that enjoyment comes at a cost, which makes us wonder whether a less mainstream approach might have made “Bridge of Spies” more challenging and demanding. The movie fulfills its goals with skill, and the main goal seems to be to serve America by telling the story of a hero who is a good, handsome American.
“Bridge of Spies” focuses on events that occurred between 1957 and 1962 – that is, at the height of the Cold War. The opening shot is one of the loveliest in Spielberg’s oeuvre: we see three different views of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) – as a man on the screen, a reflection in the mirror, and a face in a self-portrait he is painting. Having this split representation open a movie about politics and espionage seems to promise complex identities, mirrorings and doublings that add up to a moral and ideological confusion, but the result does not deliver that. If you expect “Bridge of Spies” to be an action-packed or intense spy thriller like certain adaptations of John le Carré’s novels, you’re also in for a disappointment.
No hint of irony
Spielberg never intended to make that kind of film. “Bridge of Spies” deals with dramatic events, but Spielberg unfolds them at a stately pace, not unlike his hero, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance attorney at a top law firm who served as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. Now that the British-born Abel has been exposed as a spy, Donovan has been hired to represent him.
Donovan is portrayed as the era’s typical family man, and his wife (Amy Ryan) is the era’s typical housewife. One particularly embarrassing shot close to the end shows her staring open-mouthed at the television set, having just realized what her husband has been up to; since the husband himself, back from a long journey, has fallen asleep on the sofa, all she can do is pick up his hat from the floor (as we say, “chapeau,” hats off).
There is no hint of irony in the movie’s treatment of America, gripped at the time by an intense fear of a nuclear holocaust. In one unnecessary scene, Donovan’s young son explains to his father how to prepare for a nuclear attack on America; the father is appreciative, but also reassures the boy that this will not happen. In “Bridge of Spies” Spielberg tries to document that particular moment in American history through the image of his hero, and the movie’s emphasis – which is also its main virtue – is on the central (male) characters, the bonds that form between them, and the negotiations they conduct.
After Abel is (predictably, not a spoiler) convicted of espionage, two other events take place: an American U-2 spy plane is shot down by the Soviets, and the pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is taken prisoner; and an American economics student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), is arrested for espionage in East Berlin, where a wall is just then being built to separate the two parts of the city. Donovan, supposedly done with Rudolf Abel, goes to both sides of Berlin to negotiate a swap with the Soviet and East German authorities: the Americans want to exchange Abel for Powers and Pryor.
The story (based on the screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman) is interesting, and there are some good scenes of confrontation between Donovan and his various adversaries. However, the main goal of the movie’s first part, which focuses on Abel’s trial, is to celebrate the American constitution, while the second part pays tribute to America’s determination before its enemies and its loyalty to its citizens.
Several things save “Bridge of Spies” from becoming too ideologically tacky, such as the skillful mainstream filmmaking mentioned above, which aims for the feel of a classic Hollywood film and is willing to become slow and meditative, even when dealing with momentous events. But the movie’s biggest saving grace is the relationship that forms between Donovan, a dyed-in-the-wool American patriot, and Abel, the Soviet spy, whose ideology is left unexplored. What interests Donovan, and therefore Spielberg, is Abel’s actions, not his opinions, and as a result he is the most stoical character we meet.
This relationship would not have been so significant had not the two roles been given to two extraordinary actors. Mark Rylance is considered one of the best stage actors of his time: he has won two Olivier Awards in his native Britain, as well as three Tonys. I haven’t been aware of his work in film, although he has appeared in a number of pictures (as well as on television), but the role of Rudolf Abel is his cinematic breakthrough, and I’ll be very surprised if he isn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the upcoming Oscars. His portrayal of Abel is brilliant: accurate, multifaceted, witty. Opposite him is Tom Hanks, a great actor in the tradition of great American film actors, whose precise performance manages to tone down what might have become jarringly ideological in the plot and dialogue.
Donovan and Abel’s relationship is not explored in much depth, but it works well as a human drama, albeit one whose main purpose is to show us Donovan’s integrity as a representative American. But because of the two actors involved and the dynamic between them, we end up with more than that. Every encounter between Hanks and Rylance creates an excellent scene.
For all the maturity and solidity that “Bridge of Spies” represents, there is also something a bit childish about it. When Donovan defends Abel and even appeals his verdict to the Supreme Court, his family comes under attack, and he himself gets dirty looks from other passengers on the train, who all somehow recognize him. At the end, when Donovan’s work to secure the return of Powers and Pryor comes to light, the same passengers look at him with affection, and his own previously worried face breaks into a satisfied smile.
It’s a bit funny to watch these two complementary scenes in the work of such an experienced and respected filmmaker as Steven Spielberg. At the same time, it’s also touching to see that Spielberg still wants to give us a very basic kind of cinematic experience. The same is true of the movie as a whole: “Bridge of Spies” is not deep, it has an agenda that can almost be called institutional, and it blatantly projects the anxieties of the past onto the present. Still, something about it makes for a respectable viewing experience.