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Bridge of Spies in Need of Structural Repairs

<i>Bridge of Spies</i> in Need of Structural Repairs

DVD Release Date: February 2, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: October 16, 2015
Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and brief strong language)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 142 min.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers

Mention Steven Spielberg and most people will recognize the name and the films associated with his work. To place his new feature, Bridge of Spies, among the filmmaker's extensive, diverse output, let's take a quick look back at the director's career. Spielberg's first feature—the made-for-TV Duel (1971), starring Dennis Weaver—was followed later by a string of commercial smashes and an attempt to tackle more adult fare, as with The Color Purple (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987). But it wasn't until the Best Picture-winning Holocaust drama Schindler's List, in 1993, that his creative efforts achieved unanimous critical as well as commercial success.

Today, we're 22 years removed from Schindler's List—the same interval between that film and Spielberg's first feature. If the first half of Spielberg's career was building toward Schindler's, in what way has the second half developed? The man certainly hasn't lost his touch, although his popular hits since Schindler's List haven't equaled the impact of that film. That's partly because Spielberg's more recent films have sometimes been retellings/updates of stories that had already been part of the public imagination (War of the Worlds), have carried an audience-limiting R rating (Munich), or simply have held greater appeal to older viewers (Catch Me If You Can) than did his more family-oriented earlier successes.

But there's another problem with his post-Schindler's output, and that's trying to figure out what motivates the projects he's chosen—and who the intended audience might be. While his early-career films could be categorized broadly as the work of a wunderkind who refused to grow up, these later projects are all over the map. If War Horse, an adaptation of a wildly popular British stage production, was Spielberg's attempt to recapture a sense of childlike wonder, it fizzled. But his adult-oriented stories, absent a strong lead performance (think Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln), have also sometimes underperformed. Not even Tom Hanks could draw audiences to The Terminal.

Now we have Bridge of Spies, which is low-key Spielberg, and like his previous film, Lincoln, is another historical drama with a strong actor anchoring it. But unlike Lincoln, which focused on the issue of slavery, Bridge of Spies is about more than one thing. For most of its first hour, the film is about a crusading lawyer (Hanks) who takes on the seemingly hopeless case of defending accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, The Other Boleyn Girl). Despite hostility from a "commie"-hating country and questions about his loyalties, Donovan insists that Abel is owed due process.

During this stretch of the movie, Bridge of Spies resembles a film about an unlikely budding friendship, as Abel both warms to Donovan's idealism and simultaneously seems resigned to a gloomy fate. Rylance delivers several droll one-liners that give the heavy story a nice touch of humor. But rather than follow through with this engaging if not unpredictable story of the constitutional crusader defending a reviled spy, the narrative introduces both U.S. fighter pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell, Dolphin Tale), who's shot down and taken prisoner by the Soviets, and a student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), also taken prisoner in East Berlin.

Those characters are integral to the second half of Bridge of Spies, which becomes a high-stakes negotiation in which Donovan (against the advice of government officials) attempts to trade Abel for not just one, but both, American prisoners. That means keeping his client, by then convicted for spying, from receiving a death sentence—Abel's trade value being seriously diminished if he's no longer alive, of course—and dealing with stare-downs from hostile Americans who recognize Donovan's photo in the paper as he rides the subway.

But to make room for Powers and Pryor, the story dumps Abel—the most intriguing character in the film—and shifts to Donovan's negotiations to trade Abel for Powers and Pryor. Hanks's fervency in these scenes only goes so far, and Janusz Kaminski's handsome cinematography can't disguise how much of the film comprises repetitive shots of Hanks and others walking down corridors, opening doors, and sitting across tables while talking.

That's not to say that Bridges of Spies is uninteresting visually or thematically, but it feels like two stories that, while obviously related, don’t interact well within the same movie, even with a 142-minute running time. The characters of Powers and Pryor are treated as chess pieces rather than flesh-and-blood people with stories of their own, while their sketched characters steal time we could've spent watching Donovan and Abel continue to develop a deeper understanding of one another.

The film is also surprisingly unsurprising, despite its attempts to build tension ahead of its finale. We know where the spy story is going, and it doesn't help that the supplemental scenes of Donovan's home life—including the stock characterization of a loving wife (Amy Ryan, Win Win) who has little to say or do, as well as the now too familiar scene of a family terrorized by a faceless, drive-by threat in the night—feel so rote.

Bridge of Spies tells a heroic story about an admirable person, and that should be enough to recommend the film to viewers who feel like Hollywood doesn't bring such stories to the screen nearly enough. But a film is judged on more than its themes, however noble and honorable those themes may be. If Bridge of Spies seems to resemble Hollywood films of old (there's a relative lack of objectionable content and a portrayal of an honorable protagonist), it also exhibits some crucial cracks just below the surface. Like much of today's decades-old infrastructure, this Bridge might get people from Point A to Point B, but it's in need of some crucial repairs.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Language/Profanity: “In the name of God”; “my God”; “god-a-n hell”; the “f” word; “son of a b--ch”; a joke about homicide
  • Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: A man requests cigarettes; an character says, “I think I’ll have a vodka”
  • Sex/Nudity: None
  • Violence/Crime: Footage of atomic bomb blasts and propaganda films; gunshots into a house; a plane crash and a heart-in-throat parachute; people shot at the Berlin Wall;
  • Religion/Morals/Marriage: A family says grace before a meal

Publication date: October 15, 2015