Monday, October 12, 2015

"Bridge of Spies"

 4.5 / 5 

Movies don't come more pedigreed these days than Bridge of Spies.  It's a Steven Spielberg film written by Joel and Ethan Coen, starring Tom Hanks.  Its poster depicts an earnest-looking Hanks wedged between the Stars and Stripes and the hammer and sickle with a tagline that touts that the movie will show the world what America stands for.

Ignore all that.

Bridge of Spies isn't the awards-season message movie that it might have you believe.  Instead, it's the closest Spielberg has come to matching the kind of filmmaking that labeled him a genius, a movie that seeks first and foremost to entertain, and to do it with sleek storytelling, luscious visuals and the kind of cinematic set-pieces that put him into the same league as Alfred Hitchcock.

This is the kind of film Hitchcock might have loved to have made, a movie that begins with an ordinary guy -- James Donovan, a high-priced lawyer, true, but one whose specialty is about as mundane as you can get: He represents insurance companies in accident claims.  He is that Hitchcokian "every man," a guy so non-descript you wouldn't look at him twice if you saw him on the train during his commute from Brooklyn.

There's another guy you wouldn't look at twice in Bridge of Spies.  His name is Rudolf Abel, and he's a Soviet spy.  He's supposed to be nondescript, and achieves his goal so well that even when the Feds run right into him during a chase, he tips his hat, apologizes and walks on his way.  They catch up to him, though, and Abel is arrested for spying.  It's 1957, and Cold War tensions are mounting.  The Soviets believe the U.S. is preparing for a nuclear attack.  The Soviets believe the Americans are getting their nukes ready.  The world is at a standoff.

The capture of Abel (played with understated humor and dour resignation by Mark Rylance) could be a turning point.   Donovan's bosses want to follow the letter of the law, so they appoint Donovan to provide a "competent" defense of the accused.  The case against Abel has been decided even before he sets foot in the courtroom, and when the guilty verdict is handed down, Donovan uses his actuarial-table mind to make one last-ditch appeal to the judge.

It's a war, he reasons, and we've got one of theirs.  Sooner or later, they'll have one of ours, and when they do, we'll need their guy for leverage.

Later never happens, because Capt. Francis Gary Powers has been recruited for a top-secret spying mission (it's so much more polite to be called a "photo reconnaissance" mission), and he doesn't make it far.  He's captured by the Soviets.

Neither government can get involved.  And that's where Donovan comes in to play.  He's needed as the go-between, to negotiate with the enemy -- and a married father of three who has spent most of his days analyzing liability in car crashes finds himself playing a potentially deadly game of espionage in the war-torn no-man's-land of East Berlin.

His mission is to negotiate the release of Powers in exchange of the release of Abel.  They'll carry out the exchange on the Glienicke Bridge -- the Bridge of Spies.

Donovan doesn't really know how he got here.  The best he can do is talk and reason and negotiate with people who don't want to talk or reason or negotiate.  The government disavows knowledge of his activities (they're good at that, it seems) and he mostly on his own to figure it all out.

The stakes are high, and Spielberg does a masterful job of depicting Berlin in flux, as Communist Russia built its wall to keep "their" Germans from escaping to the free West.  It's a dangerous place in a dangerous world, and for long stretches Bridge of Spies takes on both the physical appearance and the pacing of a 1940s noir thriller, played halfway in light with exquisitely long two shots that allow the two sides to go head to head on screen.

Spielberg brings many of his signature visual touches to Bridge of Spies, but those compositions, framings and shots only enhance the film -- they don't detract the way they have in movies like Minority Report and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, when Spielberg seemed to be mimicking himself.

Here, he finds new life in his classic style, and the movie benefits.  Bridge of Spies tells a massive story, spanning half the globe at times, and Spielberg's unmatched expertise keeps it simultaneously contained moving forward at a brisk speed, keeping the tension high with the confidence of a true master.

There's a lot of exposition at the start, and even throughout, but it's never dull and it's all important (except, perhaps, for a couple of odd scenes played mostly for laughs, like one involving Abel's alleged family).  There's hardly an ounce of fat on the movie, and because Spielberg knows exactly what he's doing, watching Bridge of Spies really is like watching a master craftsman at work, blending his scenes; counterbalancing intensity with softness; knowing exactly when to ratchet up the tension and when to let it go slack for just a moment.  The result is free from excess, yet not so lean as to be tasteless -- it sizzles and crackles and all looks and feels exactly right.

Save a few extraneous, softly patriotic scenes at the end, Bridge of Spies is also not a movie trying to make a grand political statement, or even to warm our hearts -- it wants to engage our minds, and thrill us the way a good thriller should, by getting our brains working.

Bridge of Spies is Spielberg's best movie since his 1994 one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler's List.  He's made some fine films since then, and some that were, generously, less successful.  But Bridge of Spies is a solid reminder, as if we ever really needed one, that when Steven Spielberg is at his best, there is no American director finer, more solidly in control of his craft.

Bridge of Spies a great spy thriller, a tense drama, a fascinating historical story.  More than all those things, though, and most importantly for moviegoers in need of solid entertainment, it's one truly terrific film.

Viewed Oct. 12, 2015 -- DGA Theater


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