Bridge Of Spies
It’s that time of year again, when the Oscar contenders come out to play. Across the Atlantic this is a short enough period, November to December usually, but over here it is far more elongated, with many of the likely candidates not being seen in Irish cinemas until February. But we all have to start somewhere, and for me it was with the old master, Steven Spielberg, in his first directorial effort in three years. His last, the magnificent Lincoln, remains one of my most favorite films of recent years, and Spielberg has gone back to the well of American history for his latest, but at a very different point. With Tom Hanks along, was Bridge Of Spies the taut spy drama it was marketed to be? Or is it just another attempt to ape the adaptations of le Carre?
New York, 1957: Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks) is given what seems to be the purely ceremonial task of representing Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a foreign national accused of being a Soviet spy. Donovan steps on many toes in defending his client to the full extent of the law, and then finds himself drawn into an international game of spycraft, when stealth aircraft pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the Soviets. A trade is possible, and it falls to Donovan to make it happen.
You might well wonder about someone like Steven Spielberg nowadays. The most profitable director in history, his legacy in the business already assured, a man who has jumped from genre to genre and to success after success. Who in Hollywood has the authority and the position to stand in front of someone like Spielberg and say “This might not be the best idea”. I imagine the waving of Oscars would suffice as a reply.
And I say that because Bridge Of Spies seems to me a very self-indulgent exercise, by a director who didn’t have someone to rein him back in, to tell him that certain things worked and other things did not work. It’s an imperfect thing, and a not particularly worthy follow-up to the majesty that was Lincoln.
I mean, it all starts well enough, with a patient look at the daily life of Rudolph Abel, a man who seems more like a harmless retiree than undercover agent, but for the more sinister aspects of his existence: mysterious phone calls, deaddrops in plain sight and secret messages hidden in fake coins. All of the Spielberg skill when it comes to making environments spring to life, from the streets of New York to Abel’s dingy apartment, are there. And also is a keenly portrayed sense that the spy game in America, in this time and place, is one that is incredibly haphazard, as American agents blunder into Abel’s apartment without really knowing what they are doing or what to look for. The sequence showcases the best and worst of Bridge Of Spies, though it might not be apparent: the best in the cinematography and performance of Mark Rylance, remarkably effective as the under-stated as Abel, and the worst in how the scene is drawn out. At that point in the film you might not mind too much, but an hour or so in and every lengthy scene and unnecessary bit of dialogue starts to wear a bit thin.
You can easily get behind Donavan initially, an everyman thrust into difficult circumstances, taking on a thankless task that gets him, surprisingly enough, very little thanks as things proceed. Bridge Of Spies’ opening section is probably its best, as Donavan defends Abel and waxes lyrical on the legal systems responsibility to provide committed defences for those accused of crimes, though one can never quite get beyond how preachy the words coming out of Donavan’s mouth is (“an apple pie on legs” as one reviewer has called him). He rails against the “Come on” attitude displayed by lawyers and CIA agents around him, but the viewer is going to be thinking those words at plenty of occasions, as the rather saintly Donavan, whose most negative trait might just be sheer stubbornness in the face of more reasonable characters, refuses to accept anything less than what he wants at all times.
The film’s decision to excise the real Donavan’s OSS and CIA ties from the narrative is important here, but hits the accuracy of the film quite hard, turning the true story of a man with first-hand experience of espionage in the fight against the Nazi’s – Donavan’s role in the Nuremberg trials is very briefly mentioned, and that’s it – into something more akin to an idealistic fairy-tale, of a down-to-earth lawyer, Atticus-like, who is called upon to serve his nation by sheer happenstance. It continues with the deflection over just what espionage Abel was performing, the invention of a gun attack on the Donovan home and Donavan’s general naiveté in much of the second half, which is perhaps meant to be endearing but comes off as a bit childish.
Hanks is decent in the role, and any scene with him and Rylance is a treat, but this is no Captain Miller I’m afraid. Maybe he’s just gotten too familiar with the director – this being their fourth collaboration – because Hanks can easily still bring the goods, on the basis of his astounding turn last year in Captain Phillips. His performance has plenty of character and little touches, but it simply isn’t one of his better ones, and he’s actually upstaged by Rylance, a man whose career and talent has long been worthy of a prestige picture opportunity (Rylance will voice the title role in Spielberg’s upcoming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, something I am looking forward to even more now).
In comparison, one of the films main problems is how weak nearly every other character is. Pivotal figures like Gary Heart, or those who should be more important to Donavan’s character journey, like his wife played by Amy Ryan, are mere placeholders without much personality of their own, sterotypes of the period living in something straight out of Republican idealisation of the Eisenhower era. Seemingly pivotal figures like American student Frederic Pryor get such little screen time that is difficult to muster up any care for them at all, and key opposition players in the spy swap being organised by Donovan have such little humanity that it is hard to credit them as Spielberg characters.
That’s also connected to the two act structure problem, with a very clear dividing line in the film between Donavan’s defence of Abel and his trip to Berlin. It results in a somewhat stilted feeling to the production, as characters and sub-plots in the first get abandoned for the second. As an example, when Donavan is given the task of defending Abel, he calls in a younger associate, a protégé of some description, and essentially insists that he cancel any plans he might have that evening so he can help with the case. The flustered young man nervously does so. Later, it emerges that Donavan’s daughter has been stood up on a date by some unidentified person, and things become awkward when said protégé arrives at the family dinner. Donavan has a knowing smile.
Now, while a bit trite, this is all well and good, you can clearly envision where this is going. Maybe Donavan disapproves, maybe he wants to test the protégé in some fashion through his help on the Abel case, maybe it will all tie in, especially with one of the later themes of the film being that a man should first be satisfied with his own conscience before taking in the feelings of others. But instead, the sub-plot vanishes after the scene above, with neither the daughter nor the protégé playing any kind of important role afterwards: they may have three or four lines between them. It’s a very odd example of Chekov’s Gun being seen right up there on the wall, being pointed out even, and then being forgotten about in the rest of the narrative.
And the rest of the narrative could use some punch, even if it was in the form of a romance sub-plot. Because Donavan’s quest in Berlin is simply dull. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why exactly, but I posit that it might be due to the lack of peril to Donavan personally – a mugging scene is more comical than dangerous in most respects – and the predictability to proceedings. Something like Ben Affleck’s Argo took a well know historical event and made it into something utterly thrilling, because there was a constant injection of suspense. Bridge Of Spies on the other hand seems like it has something very tediously inevitable about it all, the second half amounting to scene after scene of Donavan arranging for a prisoner transfer, with no real indication that he is ever really going to fail. (Sorry for the spoilers there, but to quite the film directly, “Come on”). There’s something to be said for the way this film can be seen as a commentary on recent issues – the pervading idea that “everybody counts” and that a nation must both talk the talk and walk the walk when it comes to its stated moral values – but such things are increasingly lost as the film progresses to the 140 minute mark.
And boy does it all just drag and drag. You could easily cut a good 20 to 30 minutes out of Bridge Of Spies and come up with something that carries a similar essence in story, and it would be a lot more palatable too (that, or it should have been made as a TV miniseries, something like TNT’s The Company). The last half hour is an especial bore, a spy thriller without the thrills, as characters stand around and wait for things to happen. Like so many of Spielberg’s films, Bridge Of Spies has lots of fun and interesting sequences – an umbrella scene that is something straight out of Hitchcockian noir, a “Duck and Cover” lesson in a classroom, or the panic and chaos surrounding the building of the Berlin Wall – but its overall narrative is a stagnant thing, where the stakes are never very high and the goals of characters never seem all that far out of reach.
Of course those who want to see Spielberg’s directorial prowess, with Janusz Kamiński in the cinematographer chair, will not be disappointed. Sometimes with a grainy filter, and frequently utilising shots that emphasise near figures in the corner with a wide space all around – perhaps to emphasise how small Donavan is in the grand schemes he is caught up in – Spielberg creates another period triumph in visual terms, with every scene replete with the right details, or lack of them in the case of numerous prison sequences. Contrast is the name of the game here, between American and Soviet prison cells, between New York neighbourhoods and Berlin slums and even between the way that various characters all seem to be wiping their noses all the time, Spielberg emphasising, in my opinion, the similarities between opposing sides in simple ways. The only traditional action scene – the shooting down of Hart’s U2 – comes as a bit of a surprise, but is an exhilaratingly put together sequence all the same. But as nice and glossy looking as the film is, you can’t help but think the production team might have spent a bit too much time on the visuals.
The script is a little worse. The writers don’t have the opportunity to craft words for a titan like Lincoln here, and no great source material to work of off, beyond Donavan’s little noted memoirs. But they do give it a go. Donavan’s monologues on legal responsibility can be entertaining, and would be more so if they were just a little less judgemental and preachy, with images of Tomorrowland running through my head at times. Better are things like Rylance’s “standing man” speech in describing Donavan. But this is all in the first part: things taper off badly on the wordplay front in the second as we witness a series of dry negotiations interrupted by the occasional limp witticism. Nothing comes close to Abel’s comments earlier on the nature of difficult leaders: “The boss isn’t always right, but he’s always the boss”. The mediocrity of the script overall left me very surprised when I actually saw the writer’s names flash up in the end credits: suffice to say that the Coen brothers should be doing a bit better than this.
Thomas Newman is the man behind the music, but appears to have expended the majority of his creative energy on the much better score for Spectre, with Bridge Of Spies being little more than the by now bland horns and violin movements associated with American glory, that John Williams did as well as they could be done in Saving Private Ryan. With John Williams absent, working a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Newman seems like he is just doing what he thinks the more accomplished sound man would have done.
So Bridge Of Spies is ultimately a disappointment, one that I would place, without hesitation, in the lower end of the great masters canon. There’s simply too much that isn’t working: the script that only comes to life on occasion, the poor supporting cast gipped with such humdrum characters, the boring music and the unengaging narrative, which itself is too long and too much the work of a director who couldn’t resist some bad impulses. The performances of Hanks and Rylance, Spielberg typically great job behind the camera and a few other elements prevent Bridge Of Spies from being a bad film, but it simply isn’t much better than average. Not recommended, with regrets.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and 20th Century Fox).