Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies [2015] 

Bridge of Spies [2015] is a Cold War drama based on the 1957 exchange of undercover operatives taken prisoners between the United States and the Soviets. At the center of it all is Insurance Lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who elects to not only defend the elderly Soviet spy but to also step into occupied Berlin to negotiate the exchange. Tensions are high; back home James is seen as a traitor, overseas: the enemy.

Fishing for gold. From the trailers alone the film screams ‘Oscar Bait.’ Historical backdrop? Check. Late calendar release? Check. Meticulous set and costume design? Check. Although crossing off this list accurately foreshadows the hefty dose of drawn-out debates, padding the 144-minute runtime by treading late second act circles, reserved almost exclusively to timbered interiors, I would be amiss to say they weren’t somewhat entertaining. Perhaps it’s Director Steven Spielberg’s attention to detail in cramming the lens with every bit of period authenticity; Or Tom Hanks’ effortlessly warm everyman persona perfectly suited for James’ trip from his white-fenced American dream to the cold, snowy streets of Berlin.

Too PG for me. Bridge of Spies marks the fourth Spielberg-Hanks collaboration, the first in over 10 years since The Terminal. Excusing Saving Private Ryan, the duo has a history of implementing a family friendly tone—an effective one nonetheless considering Hanks’ aforementioned appeal and the Director’s ability to craft equally familiar environments through subtlety stylized frames. Yet, in the case of this recent project, a more gritty realization of occupied Berlin would have helped generate a different angle of suspense outside of the negotiations. What we do witness, however, only scratches the surface of the Soviet’s hostile occupation; at most we catch a glimpse of fleeing Germans shot down at the wall. But as tragic as that brief moment is, a sanguine score from Thomas Newman - taking the place of usual Spielberg composer John Williams - during James’ third act return, dampens the still-ruptured city he left behind, and heightens the corny, unsubtle parallels we’re presented—invoking a feeling of safety rather than sympathy.

A lack of evidence. Despite clocking in at well over 2 hours, the writing trio of Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen neglect the embodiment of the Cold War’s tragedies: the character of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). The American student studying economics abroad is caught on the wrong side of the wall when attempting to warn Katje (Nadja Bobyleva), who we can only assume is a romantic interest of sorts, about the impending blockade. Yet, Frederic, carrying a camera, which we can only assume he uses to take pictures of his travels, and American identification on Soviet soil is ample grounds for suspicious activity, thus imprisonment. And although he’s granted a lengthy introduction, the scribes elect to mute the majority of the scene despite it being our first alternative ground-level glimpse at wall’s heartbreaking effect on innocents. A gaping period of time passes until we revisit Frederic, leaving us to wonder what his emotional state is or what kind of prejudices he had to face. A similar lack of detail can be attributed to Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), James’ pro-bono Soviet spy, wherein the evidence against Abel is strangely ignored. Being elderly, complaisant and forming a bond with James over the course of the film is enough for us to respect Abel as a character, but we’re unable to relate to the judges, agents, and angered Americans because not only is there nothing tangible but there’s no evidence presented at all, and, as a result, we’re forced into this linear viewpoint.

Oh, brother. The Coen brothers have proved their penmanship in contemporary classics such as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and No Country For Old Men – each film thriving off a subtle view of crime. So, perhaps they weren’t the best choice to write an international conflict where, although laws are bent, still require hard facts to allow a fair view of both sides since, you know, that’s how negotiations work. The dialogue is thankfully stimulating through discussions – “So everyone hates me, but at least I’ll loose” being an audible audience favorite – and the Soviet prejudices mirror America’s current imprisonment issues. As a story, however, while the climax is relatively uneventful, albeit unfiltered, no amount of historical accuracy can aid a linear, plot-driven script with a sudden character-driven ending; it dismisses the twisting narrative and expects us to care for James, Abel, Fredric, and Francis Powers (the captured US spy) when James is, as far as the film is concerned, the only human of the story.

Oscar bait with a distracted and linear narrative made bearable
on the surface, thanks to another solid Spielberg-Hanks collab.