I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Bridge of Spies

tn_bridgeofspiesIt’s like a whole bridge full of spies. Or at least, there are a couple spies on this bridge. It’s the climax of the story, two countries meeting up one cold night to trade prisoners. I guess that’s where the title comes from.

Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, who is not a spy. He’s just a lawyer who, through luck, foresight and principles, ends up rescuing a downed American spy pilot in this true Cold War story.

When we first meet him Donovan seems far from an American hero. He’s an insurance company lawyer in a bar having an argument where he’s comparing motorcyclists run over by a truck to bowling pins. But when the Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, BLITZ) is captured, somebody (Alan Alda) decides to give Donovan the shit job of defending him. What nobody expects is that he will take the job seriously.

They tell him he should defend Abel to show that America believes in giving everybody a fair trial. But of course none of these people want to actually give him a fair trial. They’re angry and confused when Donovan tries to, like, do his job. But his attitude is that if we’re gonna brag about what we stand for then we should put in the work to actually stand for that.

I gotta be honest, if I didn’t know this was a Steven Spielberg movie I would never have seen it. The trailers and the poster really make it look like a chore. You can picture the righteous speeches and triumphant music as a Regular Man stands up for noble ideals in court rooms and wintery period settings. And don’t get me wrong, this is a movie for grown ups. It is a 2 hour, 21 minutes drama starring Tom Hanks about the Cold War and the idea of America. That is true. But it’s way more fun than the trailers make it out to be. It’s not that dry, and it’s got plenty of laughs. It’s entertaining. It’s Spielberg.
One selling point that’s not really emphasized in the advertising, but that’s crucial: the Coen Brothers worked on the script (along with a guy named Matt Charman), and you can tell. Like in all of their movies there are conversations and lines that are funny just because of the unique choices of language. And there are repeated phrases and odd character moments. If it was a movie the Coens directed I think maybe the emphasis would be more on a guy foolishly getting in over his head and accidentally doing the right thing, less on a brave underdog standing up for what’s right, and that would be funnier. But Spielberg finds a nice in-between that works for him.

Bridge of Spies? Is that the one where he's on the submarine?
Bridge of Spies? Is that the one where he’s on the submarine?

It’s not the same as pure Coens, but it’s a treat to have this novelty combo, the Coen wit without the cynicsm. When Donovan tells off a CIA guy trying to get him to do some sneaky shit it’s like a Coeny version of a righteous Aaron Sorkin speech about what America stands for.

Occasionally the music by Thomas Newman tips it a little over to the corny side. Not too bad. Some of it’s good.

It’s not a spy movie in the traditional sense, but there is a little bit of spycraft on display. The opening kinda reminded me of MUNICH. And it’s definitely a thriller, not just because he’s getting followed around and shit but because once Donovan finishes the trial he ends up on a secret mission to secure the release of the captured U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell, WHIPLASH), sneaking around Berlin with people he can’t trust while the wall is going up. Donovan proves himself an extraordinary person, but he’s also a regular guy, a schlub who looks kinda like Nixon and has a wife (Amy Ryan) and kids who can’t really keep up with him and just think he’s embarrassing them. (I was surprised how moved I was when SPOILER they finally caught on.)

Rylance is a standout playing a character who remains calm and wry despite the deep water he’s found himself in. We first see him a free man working on a painting, and his demeanor never really changes from that. He kinda acts like he knows he’s doomed and it’s not worth stressing out about. He’s a man of few, precise words and expressions. He and Donovan have a good relationship because they see each other as honorable men following their own codes. It doesn’t matter that they’re on opposing sides as long as they’re playing by the rules. They just have to convince everybody else to do the same.

In a way it’s kind of a statement just to be making a movie about a heroic negotiator. One party in our country demonizes the president for negotiating a deal with Iran. During the presidential campaign Sarah Palin and others criticized Obama just for saying he would meet with leaders of “enemy” countries to try to, like, work shit out. That is one problem in our country, that it’s seen as immoral and treacherous to try to solve problems. And you kind of have to do it like Donovan in the movie, just stand by your principles and do what needs to be done and hope they don’t hit any of your kids when they do a drive-by on your living room.

I have enjoyed some of these movies about the courage of soldiers, but we need some balance to that. Here’s a movie about a guy saving lives without having to end other lives to do it. Text at the end mentions the hostages he later got released from Cuba. When he did that he also refused the CIA’s plan to have him poison Castro! For defending the rights of this spy he gets ridiculed and threatened, in one case by a police officer who gets in his face and talks about having been at Normandy. Of course, Donovan is in a very real way defending the American ideals that that soldier would also say he was fighting for. It’s easier for people to wrap their heads around good guys killing bad guys. Any other approach raises suspicions.

I guess I would consider this Minor Spielberg, but it would be Major Most-Other-Directors. A good story, solidly crafted, with something to say about the past and future of our country. Some grouches who don’t like Spielberg would accuse him of spoon-feeding us these types of sentiments, but I don’t think that’s usually the case. I think he’s just so good at the language of film that he communicates ideas very clearly. If you’ve seen BRIDGE OF SPIES, think of the moment in the very end when he’s on the train and he looks out the window and sees some kids playing. There are no words used, but everybody knows exactly what Donovan is thinking about. It’s reminding him of a horrible thing he saw in Germany, and then he’s remembering why he’s here and what he’s fighting for. He can see Abel as a friend who happens to be on the other side instead of as an enemy, but he also knows that this really is the system he believes in, not just the team he happens to be on because of where he was born. And he fought for the principles that this country was founded on, even when no one else would, when everyone hated him for it, and he was right to do it, because those kids are playing, and not getting shot at, and he wants it to stay that way.

That’s a pretty profound idea to communicate just through a couple of shots of a guy looking out a window. But that’s Spielberg. He’s not fuckin around.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 10th, 2015 at 12:37 pm and is filed under Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Bridge of Spies”

  1. The Original Paul

    November 10th, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    “Some grouches who don’t like Spielberg would accuse him of spoon-feeding us these types of sentiments, but I don’t think that’s usually the case. I think he’s just so good at the language of film that he communicates ideas very clearly.”

    Can’t both of those things be true? They don’t seem like an “either / or” kinda deal to me. I have recently accused Spielberg of a lot of things, but lacking competency in the “language of film” wasn’t one of them. It took a lot of skill and craftsmanship for Mr Spielberg to upset me as much as he did with… that other film.

    I’ll give you this, Vern… you have a real talent for making his films sound like the kind of thing I’d like to see. And it doesn’t sound as if the things I most object to in Spielberg’s recent work are part of BRIDGE OF SPIES. I just don’t want to risk feeling like I did after WAR OF THE WORLDS.

  2. Yeah, this is didact Spielberg rather than showman Spielberg, and usually I prefer the latter. That’s not always the case; Lincoln was a treat, largely due to the script, maybe, but still phenomenal. This one seemed a bit too lightweight, and at 140 minutes it struggled to keep my attention. I kind of prefer watching poor East Germans getting walled up and shot at than Tom Hanks struggling to speak German. Although as an aspiring lawyer I enjoyed his attempts to exclude illegally obtained evidence and how the judges were so pissed off at him, even though he was probably right.

  3. I too probably wouldn’t have seen this movie in theaters if it didn’t have Spielberg’s name on it. (Without Spielberg’s name, this looked like an Oscar-bait film. I have a habit of watching Oscar-bait films at home and then getting really pissed off when they do exactly what you expect them to. Don’t get me started on that Alan Turing film). For the most part Spielberg is relatively restrained, as if he trusted that the story would be interesting enough.

    There’s also something paradoxically subversive about a man who follows his principles even when everyone else wants him to bend. Hell, even superhero films and TV shows are unreflectively showing the good guys torture and even kill to carry out their larger goal. When all of cinema is occupying the moral grey zone, it feels weirdly refreshing when a film is about standing up for what you believe in, especially when it comes to matters of national security. Also, who would have thought that Spielberg would be one of America’s most important artists in the post-9/11 world? I certainly wouldn’t have.

  4. Paul – I’m not saying it’s either or, I’m saying that some people mistake one for the other. Because he makes it seem easy people think it IS easy.

    RBatty – Really good point there about moral grey zones being more popular. That’s also what MUNICH was about although I think the movie ultimately came down against the bending of principles.

  5. The Original Paul

    November 10th, 2015 at 9:42 pm

    Vern – so if I’m reading your argument correctly here, you’re saying that Spielberg gets accused of “spoon-feeding sentiment” because he’s so good at communicating ideas? That, in other words, people take his clarity of expression, and turn it into a negative? I don’t think I can agree with that.

    I can’t talk about BRIDGE OF SPIES because I haven’t seen it. But WAR OF THE WORLDS contained a great moment, near the beginning, where Tom Cruise’s ex-wife and her new bloke are dropping off the kids at his house. I was struck – as often happens with Spielberg – by just how well this scene was directed (at least until Cruise goes into his “angry working-class father” thing, at which point the illusion was gone for me. But that’s a problem with character and dialogue, not with direction.) Those few seconds of mostly non-verbal communication between five actors – Cruise, ex-wife, new boyfriend and two kids – communicated more to me about the relationship between their characters than many other directors can manage in several minutes. (In fact, here’s a comment regarding the opening of another movie that I panned from not long before then: “There was literally no other way to film this scene that would’ve given us less of an idea of who these characters are, why they’re there, or what they’re doing.” I find it almost unimaginable that I might ever say that about a Spielberg picture.)

    I obviously can’t speak for other critics of Spielberg, who may have different issues with his work than I do. As far as “sentiment” goes then I have to disagree with you about the idea that it’s how Spielberg presents his ideas that’s the problem. I think it’s what ideas that he’s presenting that I personally find objectionable. In terms of his technique – his ability to convey ideas as economically as possible through the medium of film, showing as much as possible in as little time as possible – I’d argue that he’s one of the all-time greats.

  6. This film puts me in weird spot, because yes, I found it utterly mediocre. But yet there is Spielberg doing what he does, which is make movies better than just about anybody else. Shouldn’t I appreciate him more? This review reminds me of Vern’s crystal skull review in that I found that movie strangely boring despite all the stuff going on and so skillfully done. So I fixate on stupid shit like the CGI gofers like any nitpicking internet nerd; that is, I’m just focusing on stuff to explain my dissatisfied reaction because to really figure out what bothers me would require me to re-watch a movie that didn’t do much for me because I’m not smart enough to figure it out the first time.

    I found the kids jumping on the fence at the end a really obvious parallel to the scene in Germany. And frankly what exactly was the point of it? It triggers a powerful memory for Donovan but I mean, is the point that he appreciate the fact that America is more free than the USSR? The kids in Brooklyn are playing a game. For the people in Germany it is a deadly dangerous business. It is not the same thing at all.

    So maybe that’s putting my finger on it a little bit. It seemed really paint-by-the-numbers and I’m not clear what the point is. Tom Hanks doesn’t really go through any kind of change and he never really seems out of his depth either, which kind of leaked away tension.

    This did have some stuff I really liked. Mark Rylance was great in this.

    I also amused myself by tormenting my wife while watching this, saying shit like “Where’s the bridge of spies?” and “Is Tom Hanks going to build a bridge made out of spies?” That poor woman.

  7. So this is not a remake of the I SPY episode BRIDGE OF SPIES?

  8. “I found the kids jumping on the fence at the end a really obvious parallel to the scene in Germany. And frankly what exactly was the point of it? It triggers a powerful memory for Donovan but I mean, is the point that he appreciate the fact that America is more free than the USSR?”

    Well, yeah, kind of. He’s back in America, land of the free, home of the brave and happy about it. That moment is just a quick reminder of how much more he likes his country than the oppressive state he just came from. Kind of like Frodo coming back to the Shire and seeing some hobbit kids playing with sticks acting like they’re sword-fighting.

  9. The Original Paul

    November 11th, 2015 at 7:06 am

    AdmiralRamirez:

    “But yet there is Spielberg doing what he does, which is make movies better than just about anybody else. Shouldn’t I appreciate him more?”

    You have just perfectly encapsulated my feelings about modern-day Spielberg in general.

  10. As much as I love The Beard this is definitely a “wait for home video” movie for me, but I’m looking forward to watching it when it does so.

    It’s been a while though since there’s been a “fun” Spielberg movie and I’m glad the next two he has lined up fall into that category.

  11. Can we stop calling him The Beard, please? George Lucas has a beard. George Romero has a beard. Brian De Palma has a beard. John Milieus has a beard. Every fucking phony blue-collar hipster with a man-bun has a beard. It’s not just dismissive (“Yes, Mr. Spielberg, I know you’ve created more modern classics than just about anyone, but have you noticed that you have HAIR on your FACE?”), it’s also about as descriptive as calling him The Head. That kind of catty, reductive crap is for those Razzie assholes. We’re better than that.

  12. I assumed the Beard was a neutral term at worst or a term of endearment at best. Also, reverse racism.

  13. The Original Paul

    November 11th, 2015 at 9:16 am

    Yeah, I’m with Skani / Griff on this one… I’ve never heard “the Beard” being used as a derogative term. I think it’s supposed to be affectionate.

  14. I’m sure Griff didn’t mean it as a condescending name, but I’ve made the same complaint before. Most directors of his generation had/have beards, so I never got why that was supposed to describe him. And these days it’s probly more unusual for a man to be clean shaven.

  15. I don’t think Griff meant it that way either, but it usually seems to be used by people who don’t take his work seriously. In general, you don’t see people reducing artists they respect to their most superficial attribute.

  16. Also I’ve never been quite sure what “reverse racism” was supposed to be exactly. “You’re assume that my comments were racially motivated, which makes YOU the racist one!” Does that describe it? Sounds like something Larry would dream up during a 104-degree fever.

    Also, man-bun? Is that the thing on your head or the thing that you sit on?

  17. Yes, have some respect for the face hair challenged, Paul! I always thought “The Beard” was a play on “The Bard” aka Shakespear. And being the Shakespear of movie directors can’t be all bad?

  18. Yeah, that was a Larry joke.

  19. Majestyk – I beg to differ! There’s J-Lo (“the Butt”), Donald Trump (“the Wig”), Zachary Quinto (“the Monobrow”), James Van Der Beek (“the Forehead”), etc. There are loads!

    …Come to think of it, I think you might have a point about the “disrespectful” thing. I’m not making a strong case otherwise here, am I?

    Skani – ahhh I getcha.

  20. Jeez, I thought it was supposed to be a term of endearment but if really bothers you I’ll stop using it.

    @Paul I’m pretty sure Kim Kardashian would be “The Butt” nowadays considering her ass is even bigger than J-Lo’s ever was.

  21. AnimalRamirez1976

    November 11th, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    I guess my memory of the fence jumping may be leading to my confusion. Or maybe the execution want quite right. Donovan has such a pained expression on his face as he sees the kids playing. Like oh my god it’s happening again not thank god we live in the land of the free. Written on my phone in haste. Sorry to backtrack so fat.

  22. It’s not that big a deal, Griff. It’s just one of those little things that bug me. Don’t worry about it.

  23. Like when I was called an asshole by The One We Don’t Mention By Name. I’m pretty sure he meant it as a compliment. We all have one, right?

  24. I thought this was one of the best, most well-made films I’ve seen this year. I was truly moved and it was so nice to see something totally lacking any cynicism. Great review Vern.

  25. If you’ve seen BRIDGE OF SPIES, think of the moment in the very end when he’s on the train and he looks out the window and sees some kids playing. There are no words used, but everybody knows exactly what Donovan is thinking about.

    So is this a Spielberg motif?

    I’m thinking about the end of JURASSIC PARK, when Dr. Grant is staring out at some pelicans. We all know what he’s thinking.

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