“BRIDGE OF SPIES” Directed by Steven Spielberg; Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen; Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell; Rated PG - 13 for “for some violence and brief strong language”; Running time 141 minutes; In wide release October 16, 2015.
Steven Spielberg’s latest contribution to cinematic history is “Bridge of Spies,” a Cold War era thriller starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance in Oscar-worthy roles.
Hanks portrays James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is asked to defend an accused Soviet spy (Rylance). And though Hanks has received his usual praise from critics, I found the subdued acting from Rylance even better. For a “bad guy,” his character is extremely likeable, and we become just as invested in his fate as Francis Gary Powers, the American shot down in Soviet air space.
Kelly: For a Spielberg film, the score is sparse. Thomas Newman stood in on this film for the legendary John Williams, and one does wonder what a Williams score would have been like for this film. But the lack of a soaring score allows us to focus more on what truly shines in “Bridge of Spies:” the writing. I never would have anticipated so much humor in such a dark film. Dark as in the moody lighting, probably owing much to Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, and dark as in the subject matter. It’s a time when schoolchildren are scared of bombs and the government is paranoid. No one is safe. The Berlin Wall is going up and American planes are being shot down.
Bryan: For me, the writing was not as humorous as I expected, knowing it came from the Coen Brothers in advance, but it was so sharp I couldn’t believe it. I think one of the most difficult things for a filmmaker to master is the ability to keep a smile on your face while the tension in the film smolders slowly. Through this film, with Tom Hanks and his incredibly intelligent portrayal of James Donovan, we see the tension ratchet up immeasurably, but not a minute goes by without a really good moment to smile at, whether that was some scolding Donavan offered, witty dialogue, or the absurdity of the situation.
Andy: Exactly-- the humor was used to great effect, to give us a chance to breathe and cut the tension. As funny as the Coens are, we forget about No Country for Old Men, Miller’s Crossing, or The Man Who Wasn’t There-- they’re experts at drama, too. This is a great meeting of script, acting, and direction-- with several masters (Spielberg, Hanks, Ethan and Joel Coen) displaying their finest craft to deliver something solidly dramatic and tense that also gives us the ability to smile and relate to Hanks’ genial aw-shucks demeanor.
Kelly: I must admit I’m not very familiar with the Coens’ work, but now I feel a need to see some of their earlier films. The dialogue was so tightly written. Not an extraneous word to be found in any scene. And I wasn’t familiar with the subject matter the film is based upon, but I thought, being a Spielberg film, it must end well. Right? But even with that hope (and without revealing the ending), there is so much tension. Waiting for the phone to ring. Wondering if people can be trusted. Feeling as lost in an embattled foreign country as Tom Hanks must feel. I probably held my breath for half the movie, stressed and waiting to see what would happen.
Andy: Well, we know World War III never happened. Is that a spoiler? Even being a huge Cold War buff and knowing a decent amount about the U2 incident, this made me want to learn more about Donovan. The film’s epilogue points to his impact outside of the events of this film and it’s inspiring.
Bryan: I had been complaining recently about how Ridley Scott had pulled a Steven Spielberg with the ending of “The Martian,” and here I am, incredibly glad that Spielberg stuck the landing on a much more Scott like ending here. And that brings me to the undertones of this film. It surprises me how much Spielberg avoided every cliche imaginable when giving us a more balanced look at the Americana life of the 1950s. There’s a dark side here. Perhaps one of the most striking scenes in the film happens in a bathroom where Donovan’s young son has filled up a bathtub full of water in case of nuclear attack. You don’t realize quite how absurd the nuclear scare and the Cold War was until you see its effect on children with sensible parents. And even though, through Hanks, Donovan is able to embody the proto-typical American with all that that implies, we see how atypical that really was in the time, from his confrontation with a police officer to his interactions with the CIA. There is a value that standard American ideals place on the individual human life and it is spoken more often than practiced. I thought-hoped-this xenophobic phenomenon was something unique to our day and age, but Spielberg in this film is able to hold up a dark mirror to show exactly how long a shadow that particular reflection casts.
Andy: This is drenched in Red Scare paranoia, and it’s awesome. It will be interesting to compare this to the upcoming “Trumbo” starring Bryan Cranston about the Blacklist and HUAC hearings. They feel like interesting companion pieces to one another. (Also note that when Donovan is in West Berlin one of the movies playing is “Spartacus”-- written by Dalton Trumbo) But in the end, you wonder exactly what all this spycraft was about. We never find out what Abel was up to, probably because from Donovan’s perspective, it doesn’t matter.
Donovan tries to play the best hero-- the guy who stands up for fair play. He defends Abel out of duty to every person deserving an able defense, and represents him to the court as as a guy simply doing a job for his government, the same way we have people doing the same job for ours, and applies an ethic to it of showing decency and kindness because that’s how we’d want our guy treated. He’s the guy who takes his client’s case to the Supreme Court because he thinks he should be covered by the 4th amendment even though he’s not American. That was actually my favorite point in the entire film-- this monologue is the stuff that Oscar bait is made of, the kind of scene that gets played in a film’s sizzle reel at awards shows. And it was powerful.
Bryan: I love that Spielberg (with the aid of a tight Coen Brothers script) doesn’t spoonfeed us the information. We’re given no subtitles for foreign languages. The opening scene is played entirely cinematically with no words whatsoever. Who is a bad guy? Who is a good guy? The actions and intentions of these characters tell us much more about their state of mind than anything they say outwardly.
Andy: I love that. I love that Abel is played so endearingly by Mark Rylance. I love the lack of subtitles. It helps us identify more with Donovan, who we find out speaks only the smallest amount of German and no Russian, so we’re in the same boat he is. It was a really smart move in a film full of tiny things like this that help with atmosphere and building the tension.
Kelly: I can’t praise Rylance enough. His performance left such an impression on me.
Bryan: Like that scene where Donovan’s coat is stolen. Brilliant. We don’t understand a lick of dialogue, and we know Donovan barely speaks the language, but I can tell you, without a doubt in my mind, that he refused to give them the coat until they told him what he wanted to know. Everything was on his terms, regardless of the language barrier.
Andy: That scene was brilliant and had me on the edge of my seat. This is not only one of the best films of the year, it is one of Spielberg’s best. It is one of Hanks’s best. And it is one of the Coen Brothers’ best. That’s saying something. This is right in the same zone as Ex Machina and Mad Max: Fury Road. I might complain this movie is a little long if it wasn’t so good. 10/10.
Bryan: Overall, this is one of those films I keep thinking back to and wish I’ve seen more than once. It’s something you chew on. It’s the sort of film that challenges your view of the world, of your place as both a citizen and as an artist, and forces you to ask more questions than it answers. And it manages to bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your face. And isn’t that what we go to the movies for? To cry and smile and to learn something new about ourselves and the world around us? This is easily one of the best films of the year. 10/10.
Kelly: I’ve seen all of Spielberg’s films. And while I tend to prefer the blockbusters, with lots of action and soaring Williams’ scores, this is my absolute favorite of his “based on a true story” films. From start to finish it felt flawless. Acting, script, cinematography. I laughed, I teared up, I cared about the characters. I wasn’t sure at all what to expect, and I was so pleasantly surprised. I’ve been telling everyone I know how good it is, and everyone on this film deserved an Oscar. 10/10.