A bit more spying and a lot less talking would have made this 'thriller' more thrilling
Once in a while for whatever reason, a well-acted, well-shot, well-directed and well-meaning film fails to ignite any passion or emotion: Bridge of Spies is one such film.It lures you in with a fairly exciting trailer (cobbling together the few action scenes in the film, i.e. a plane crash and an attempt to climb the Berlin Wall), the Hanks-Spielberg chemistry, and that evocative title, oozing with overtones of John le Carré and Graham Greene. The plot is promising enough on paper, not least because it was 'inspired by true events'. In a nutshell, lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is sent to Berlin to negotiate a high-profile Cold War prisoner exchange between US pilot Francis Gary Powers, downed and captured by the Soviets during a top-secret U-2 mission to ascertain their nuclear capabilities, and the KGB spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (Mark Rylance) who was recently captured in New York.The actual handover, which takes place on Glienicke Bridge connecting East and West Berlin (as was), is downplayed somewhat; Bridge of Spies is not concerned so much with the destination as the journey. The journey follows a trail of moral conundrums and tricky intra-Communist politics against the backdrop of the Cold War nuclear arms race that began in earnest in the 1950s. The film's journey pits the humanity of the individual against broader and more ruthless national agendas. It asks questions about the nature of a traitor, and of taking sides; it lauds those who can stand their ground and not give in, as per Abel’s 'Standing Man' anecdote (which might have made a good alternative title). The trouble is, it's all a wee bit boring.
This is partly to do with missing information that might have aided understanding, and therefore appreciation. For example, why would a Russian spy (Abel) speak with a Scottish accent? What the film doesn't mention is that the real Abel was born in Newcastle and raised in Scotland. Why was an insurance lawyer chosen by the US government to handle negotiations on a sensitive Cold War exchange? The real Donovan had experience in the proto-CIA intelligence unit the Office of Strategic Services, and was familiar with Germany (and German) from his involvement in the Nuremberg Trials. How did the FBI know who and where Abel was? In real life Abel had a Finnish-Soviet spy assistant who later defected to the US and informed on him.
The film is pitched as a 'thriller', but the pace and action is less than thrilling. Abel spends more time painting than doing spy stuff, although Rylance's Wolf Hall-style slow way of talking and poker-face pregnant pauses lend an appropriate ambiguity. And in fact he never confesses: he is the Standing Man of espionage. Meanwhile calm and measured Donovan is the Standing Man of justice as well as of foresight: against the wishes of his family and the nation, he successfully defends Abel, getting him 30 years behind bars rather than the death sentence. Abel is not American and therefore not a traitor, even though he might be a spy. Judge and jury are persuaded by Donovan's silky diplomacy that Abel is worth more alive than dead as a potential bargaining tool in future exchanges with Moscow - which is exactly what happens of course.
Donovan is on a journey of his own, from impartial lawyer to emotionally-invested hero-humanitarian. And this being Tom Hanks, of course you believe that he really is that nice, even though he's a lawyer. For the first half of the film, Donovan is constantly in and out of secretive meetings in dark bars and government offices with various agents and Abel himself. Cliches abound, for which we can presumably hold co-writers the Coen brothers partially responsible. The second half takes place in wintry, grey, bombed-out Berlin (a marked contrast to the affluence and cheer of Donovan's New York suburb), where Donovan skilfully plays the USSR and the embryonic GDR against each other accordingly.
Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance give skillfully-nuanced performances and share a good level of credible 'bromance' charisma.
For light relief, there are moments of comedy and cosy domesticity. Donovan's wife Mary (Amy Ryan) is super-supportive, even when she suspects that her husband's sudden 'fishing trip' to Scotland might involve something more dangerous than getting a little water in his waders. But Cold War hysteria and paranoia hangs over family life: Donovan's son practices his 'duck and cover' drills at home; Mary relates how the local housewives have frantically been buying up tinned food. There's also a hint of Hitchcock in Donovan's bug-eyed Russian contact at the Soviet Embassy who is both sinister and clownish.
Minor US characters are not caricatures like some of the Russians, but they are portrayed as pragmatic suits. Even MASH legend Alan Alda as Donovan's boss (he always seems to play somebody's boss these days) can't lend much charisma. The point about intelligence work being just another job is a valid one, but uninteresting with it. Fortunately Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance give skillfully-nuanced performances of their calm yet steely characters, and share a good level of credible 'bromance' charisma. Their mutual respect provides a bridge of sorts between the Us and Them mentality of the time.
Imagery is sometimes effective, sometimes heavy-handed. Donovan steps over a carpet of broken flash bulbs after the verdict in Abel's trial, a portent of the political eggshells he will soon tread. The film opens with a reflected mirror shot of Abel looking himself (and by extension, the audience) in the eye as he paints a self portrait, and one of the last scenes involves a painting of Donovan which also stares right out at the viewer. These are both men who can look themselves and the wider world in the eye. 'Shouldn't we show our enemy who we are?' asks Donovan during Abel's trial. Less successful is an end image of kids climbing over a garden fence, watched from the train by Donovan whose expression turns troubled as he remembers watching from a Berlin train as people are shot trying to scale the wall.
At least Thomas Newman reins in his trademark gushiness on the soundtrack, only the second Spielberg film soundtrack not to be handled by long-time collaborator John Williams (who was unavailable due to illness). The trailer uses a quote about the Cold War being a war that 'does not involve men at arms, it involves information'. Spy thrillers needn't all be Bourne-style men constantly at arms in multiple exotic locations. But if what we're getting is mostly information, it needs to be framed less like a succession of pedestrian business meetings over coffee and whisky.
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