Auteur Steven Spielberg is at it again, and still affixed to the historical genre. His latest film, Bridge of Spies, is a taut, magnifying project that was shot marvelously and set (partially) in a war-torn East Berlin. It also illuminates the stylish get-up of New York City circa the 1950s.
Aside from aesthetics, Bridge of Spies is also written efficiently and theatrically. That is to say, there is one climax after the next, each broached at a steady pace and with enough suspense to make the story cohesive. There is little superfluous fluff or idle chat, and the narrative completes a marvelous arc — one of diplomacy and integrity. We’d expect nothing less from the Coen brothers who, along with Matt Charman, had their hands on this screenplay.
From the opening scene, the film immediately sets out to paint its second-most important figure, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), planting him in the bustle of everyday life in New York. But a simple, voiceless phone call shows us all we need to know about him.
Although his cover seems impenetrable — he’s a harmless portrait painter — “Colonel” Abel is a loyal operative, buried in the American lifestyle. He is a Soviet spy. For purposes of this review, though, Abel is a compelling character for his fearlessness and allegiance, even while so many factors weigh him down. For that, the Coen brothers must be commended.
While Tom Hanks (playing Brooklyn lawyer James B. Donovan) shines as the leading man yet again, the weight of the film lands on the narrative in its entirety, which will capture viewers’ hearts. It may be hard to believe that the setting is lively — at times, it carries such depravity, lifelessness, and shady diplomacy — but it truly is. The commanding characters, including KGB and CIA spies, U.S. Airmen, and successful counselors, are all put through the wringer. Yet, it is the leading men that form a bond and grow as individuals, going beyond borders and socioeconomic structures.
On production values, Bridge of Spies is cut together nicely by editor Michael Kahn, and the running time flies by, a testament to the visual grandeur and the immersion of the cast, which also features Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons, and Michael Gaston. The precarious ’50s Cold War environment is splayed out on the screen so accurately, so evocatively, that viewers will forget that they may in fact not be attachés to the U.S. embassy.
Spielberg proves yet again that he is a force to be reckoned with. His “project selectivity” ultimately translates nicely, for he adds so much color to a film that may otherwise have fallen flat upon the direction of a not-so-fearless leader. Furthermore, this is a nostalgic movie, one that brings us back to a different era, both visually and emotionally; a time of different, more stylistic political thrillers.
Spielberg succeeds in showing the “tent pole” film producers that a successful formula for a film does not have to feature superheroes, an apocalyptic meteor, or a vampiric plague. The same chaos can shine on narratives like Bridge of Spies, where suspense is heightened, and the “apocalyptic” portion of the film instead becomes instances of botched diplomacy or difficult prisoner negotiations. It’s pleasant to see that films like this are still being made.
In terms of plot, Bridge of Spies sets out to cover the defense of accused Soviet spy, Abel, who was caught in a New York hotel room by U.S. officials. Insurance lawyer Donovan is asked to defend Abel, in an effort to give the accused a semblance of due process. In actuality, Donovan is urged to rubber-stamp Abel’s conviction. Donovan is met with resistance on many fronts and at every corner — from the prosecution, from the presiding judge, and from “cowards” who look negatively at him. All the while, Abel does not crack and acts admirably in the face of danger. When asked why he doesn’t worry, Abel simply says, “Will it help?”
Donovan ultimately takes the case to the Supreme Court, and although he faces this conundrum, the plot thickens when American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the USSR and captured. Suddenly, Abel becomes a bargaining chip for the U.S. to reclaim their pilot, plus another American caught amid the ruins and oppression of East Berlin.
The CIA then relies on Donovan to act as an unaffiliated arbiter to negotiate the swap. He is sent to the segregated city of Berlin to speak with an attorney who claims to represent Abel’s wife. Again, the conflict branches out further when the major players become both the USSR and the German Democratic Republic.
With Bridge of Spies, Spielberg reminds moviegoers why he has remained atop the industry in the past few decades, next to names like Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, Francis Ford Coppola, Ridley Scott, and James Cameron. It’s apparent that when working in the realm of historical fiction, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more complete filmmaker. His biggest asset in Bridge of Spies is, perhaps, his ability to interpret the script. Be sure to catch Bridge of Spies at a theater near you. It opened October 16.
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