Silver Screen: Bridge of Spies ***
Filmmaking maestros Joel and Ethan Coen are among the rare class of filmmakers equally regarded for the distinctiveness of their writing and their singular aesthetic.
Great visual stylists often rely on screenwriting partners, and the best writers sometimes make a modest presentation. But the brothers from Minnesota seem like they could film an adaptation of your weekend to-do list and make it their own, and possibly also write the most recognizable to-do list of all time. (1: Clean gutters in somber silence. 2: Have awkward conversation with neighbor in funny accent. 3: Flip coin to decide neighbor’s fate. 4: Feed neighbor into wood chipper.)
During the last two years, however, they’ve stepped outside their favored discomfort zone to pen a pair of strikingly straightforward historical films, both based on true stories. Both times the results were definitely un-Coenesque— that is to say, kinda boring.
Not so hot on the heels of director Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which turned Olympian and war hero Louis Zamperini’s astonishing life story into an obligatory history lesson, the Coens script Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama Bridge of Spies. The result is a thoughtful, smartly made film that richly evokes its period and setting. And it also is kind of dull.
The inspiration for the movie is James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer whose service during the Nuremberg trials draws the attention of the United States government. Uncle Sam wants the honorable, eminently professional Donovan to perform an especially unpleasant service to his country by defending accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). After all, somebody has to do it.
Hanks plays Donovan as a slightly more self-aware Atticus Finch type, a man of supreme moral turpitude who truly believes in the law. Like the fictional Finch, he’s willing to defend his client even if it turns him into a social pariah and endangers his family. His client, unlike Atticus’s Tom Robinson, is pretty definitively guilty, but that doesn’t mean Donovan won’t put forth his best effort. Donovan does such a good job that he irks the presiding judge (go-to mean old white guy character actor Dakin Matthews) and shadowy forces within the CIA.
Comparisons between Hanks and Jimmy Stewart might be tiresome, but they’re also apt. Nobody but Hanks and Stewart could bring the same blend of quiet dignity and wry cantankerousness to their roles. They’re both masters at conveying a blend of petty human irritations and moral clarity that lends good humor and humanity to characters who could have become isolated and unrelatable as moral paragons.
Donovan’s work leads him to become a kind of unofficial American ambassador when American spy pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured behind enemy lines. The feds want to exchange Abel for Powers in secret, so they send Donovan to Germany to make the swap. But another incident along the under-construction Berlin Wall imperils the negotiations and threatens to make Donovan’s task impossible.
Despite some lively dialogue in the script from the Coens and Matt Charman, Spielberg isn’t quite able to turn two-plus hours of nuanced negotiations into thrilling cinema. Bridge of Spies opens with a terrific sequence of spycraft pitting Rudolf Abel against a team of government investigators (led by The Wire’s Domenick Lombardozzi) and carries this momentum through the trial, but it can’t carry this same excitement overseas where the bureaucratic bickering between Russia and East Germany is almost as frustrating to the viewer as it is to Donovan.
Spielberg’s great accomplishment here is his evocation of and sly commentary on Cold War polarization. He traffics in traditional popstar iconography— dig Amy Ryan’s string of pearls and admiring smile as Donovan’s faithful, God-fearing wife— but subverts it to question the ethos of the era.
As Donovan notes to several unreceptive government agents, his client is a good soldier who refused to sell out the secrets of his own country, just the same as our own spies are doing over in Commieland. Spielberg beautifully and non-judgmentally contrasts Abel’s trial with Powers’s frightening, alienating experience in the Soviet justice system.
Spielberg also captures the chaos and confusion as completed construction of the Berlin Wall cleaves a city in two. The director is more sympathetic here to the individual lives tangled up in the conflict than any national interests. His lionization of Donovan as embodiment of intellectual patriotism keeps Spielberg’s flag firmly planted on our side of the line, but Rylance’s moving portrayal of Abel tempers any xenophobic glee.
Bridge of Spies brings fresh perspective to a transitional period of history, the uneasy time between the sweet relief of World War II’s end and the Manichean standoff between global superpowers. In its best moments, Bridge of Spies brings this history to vibrant life. But as the story stalls out during the aggravating accords that make up the second half, the history lesson begins to drag, and some long-lost voice in your head begins to wonder, “Shouldn’t the bell ring soon and release me?”
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.