Wednesday, November 4, 2015

New movie review: Bridge of Spies

Tom Hanks stars in Steven Spielberg's excellent Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies.

“We all want it to have that Barton Fink feeling, and I guess we all have that Barton Fink feeling, but since you’re Barton Fink, I’m assuming you have it in spades.”
– Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) in Barton Fink

No one can make a movie like Steven Spielberg. There is a whole generation of filmmakers inspired by Spielberg that is making movies now and trying to capture that particular brand of magic. JJ Abrams immediately springs to mind, but only Spielberg feels like Spielberg. It is that feeling you are watching something that exists outside of time, a classical work of art that could be appreciated as well now as 40 years ago or 40 years hence. When the lights go down and the first frames of the movie flash by, it is transformative. It is transporting. It is Spielberg.

Right away, Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies has that feeling, up to and including leading man Tom Hanks in his fourth appearance in front of the camera for Spielberg. I do not like to say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore,” because it is a cliché and it is rarely true, but it is has been a long time since we saw something this Capra-esque at the theater. The little guy earnestly fighting a corrupt system with the power of good and right just does not have much place at the movies anymore, except in a Spielberg movie.

Mark Rylance and Hanks in Bridge of Spies.
The director has rightly taken knocks throughout his career for a sentimental streak that sometimes borders on maudlin. There are elements of that tendency in the family sequences here, which are the weakest part of the film but take up such little screen time it hardly matters. The meat of the story involves a man who has dedicated his life to learning the letter of the law so he can inspire others by protecting the spirit of the law.

Hanks plays James Donovan, a Brooklyn attorney tasked by the government with providing the semblance of legal defense for a suspected Soviet spy. The trial is a sham, however, and Donovan’s client, Rudolf Abel, is railroaded through the system toward a quick guilty verdict despite shoddy police work and a failure to adhere to basic legal principles. This does not sit right with Donovan, who refuses to betray his ethics and instead vows to fight for the due process rights of the most hated man in America. This makes Donovan the second-most hated man in America.

The film makes clear in its first scene – an excellent film noir-style chase through the streets of New York City – Abel is guilty. There is no question of this, but it is the legal precedent that concerns Donovan. He takes the case to the highest court in the land and asks quite rightly how we can claim American exceptionalism while denying the very freedoms and rights on which that exceptionalism is founded. He loses anyway.

In one of the best edits you are likely to see this year, as Donovan is pleading his case in a lower court, Spielberg and editor Michael Kahn cut to Donovan’s children in class, holding their hands over their hearts and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. It is a brilliant bit of symbolism as the children robotically spout learned, practiced words about “liberty and justice for all,” while Donovan puts his life and reputation on the line to defend the meaning behind those words.

In any other movie, this would be the bulk of the story, but in Bridge of Spies, this actually is only the first act. The screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, who gave us that Barton Fink quote above, and Matt Charman spends the last two-thirds of the movie on Donovan’s attempt to negotiate a prisoner exchange among the U.S., Soviet Union, and East Germany. If you know the history on which the movie is based, you know what happens to Donovan, Abel, and downed American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, developments I will not spoil here. The joy, as ever, is in watching Spielberg recreate history.

Spielberg is well known by now for his massive historical set pieces such as the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in Schindler’s List and the storming of Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan. There is nothing in Bridge of Spies that quite rivals those masterful sequences – really, there is little in cinema history to rival those two scenes – but Spielberg is allowed to indulge this aspect of his filmmaking in depicting the building of the Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall goes up in Bridge of Spies.
The Wall is such an icon of modern global history that to watch it go up brick by brick is an unsettling experience. In the nearly 30 years since it came down, it has attained a certain mythical quality in its legacy of oppression, separatism, and turmoil, but in reality, it is a mostly stone wall constructed hastily out of fear and anger. It is another wonderful bit of symbolism, showing the divide between East and West is a simple construct that can be put up and torn down as easily as a wall if we choose to work at it as Donovan does.

On a technical level, all of the scenes set in Berlin are simply gorgeous. Production designer Adam Stockhausen perfectly evokes the feel of a post-war city that is still crumbling, while cinematographer and longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski captures the desolation and despair of the landscape. It is a fully lived-in world and one in which no right-thinking person would want to live.

If Spielberg is channeling Capra, then Hanks has conjured the spirit of Capra’s favorite everyman, Jimmy Stewart. Hanks portrays Donovan with an awe-shucks charm that belies a razor-sharp wit, brilliant legal mind, and cunning political savvy. He is like Andy Taylor, Atticus Finch, and Jefferson Smith all rolled into one. He is the man you do not see coming, which makes him dangerous. It is the kind of role Hanks was born to play, and he knocks it out of the park as you would expect.

More likely for American audiences, the revelation will be Mark Rylance as Abel. Rylance is a highly respected, award-winning stage actor who has appeared in a handful of feature films, but his wry line deliveries and world-weary presence absolutely steal the movie. Rylance acts the part of the perfect spy, who cannot be rattled by threats of torture imprisonment, or death. Every time Donovan asks him if he is scared or worried or nervous, Abel asks dryly, “Would it help?” This is a man who knows his lot in life, and Rylance captures that resignation beautifully.

Bridge of Spies may not knock your socks off right after you see it – it is not that kind of movie – but it will stick with you long after you leave the theater. It resonates because it is a simple story about mostly good people trying to do good deeds in a world in which the line between right and wrong has been blurred beyond recognition. It takes a lot of work to stay on the right side of the line, and if Bridge of Spies has a message, it is about the importance of that work.

See it? Yes.

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