We tend to want our lives to be very black and white; very “right and wrong”. We want what’s good to be our guiding light and what’s bad to stay squarely in the shadows. The truth, of course, is that we seldom get what we want and there are many complexities to what’s good and bad that need to be faced every day.
So it is with film. We can’t always have good films and bad films. We are sometimes handed great films that seem riddled with bad elements, and lesser films that contain a lot of promise.
The trick is being able to weigh the good from the bad, the light from the shadows.
BRIDGE OF SPIES begins by being about Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Taken from his home as the film begins, he is accused of being a Soviet spy operating in America. Due process dictates that he is assigned an attorney – an American attorney – and for Abel that comes in the form of an insurance attorney named James Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan is a partner at his firm, and hasn’t practiced criminal law in more than ten years…which is clearly why he is the one to defend this enemy of the state.
On the other side of the wall, an American pilot named Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet airspace while his U-2 aircraft is running a top-secret recon mission. His mission is so covert, he has orders to destroy his plane if it takes fire rather let it be recovered by the enemy. Powers manages to escape the crash, but is captured behind enemy lines becoming a prisoner of war. Not long after, an American student studying in Berlin named Frederic Pryor is detained by East German authorities after trying to smuggle a national across the Berlin Wall.
The American government – unofficially, of course – then tasks Donovan with negotiating with the communists. The mission is to arrange a prisoner exchange; Abel for both Powers and Pryor. But how much success can one man have when his own government won’t avow the task, and when the task involves negotiating with two separate nations?
The standout in BRIDGE OF SPIES is handily Mark Rylance. When we first meet him, he is painting a self-portrait so expressive, that we feel almost expect it to start telling us the story. He is clearly a patient man, and one of quiet contemplation. We don’t know what he did to get himself scooped up by the FBI, but the moment his door is kicked-in, we already feel for him. There’s the contradiction: he’s the enemy, and yet everything about the way Rylance composes himself makes us identify with the enemy.
From the slight downturn of his mouth to the way his eyes seem to continually ask “So?”, we are rapt any time he’s on-screen. If the film has a failing, it’s that Ryalnce isn’t on-screen more.
When considering the failure or success of a Steven Spielberg film, one feels as though it needs to be graded on a curve. This is, after all, the man who got delighted us with aliens in bike baskets, terrified us with killer sharks, and moved us with the sacrifice of our greatest generation going to war. Where does a film like BRIDGE OF SPIES fit on the spectrum?
The most accurate answer is “somewhere in the middle”. There are scenes and moments in this movie that are indicative of Spielberg at his sharpest. Some are filled with altruism, some with sharp tension. For example, this is a film that begins with an extended dialogue-free sequence of a random man being followed by police. However those moments feel disconnected, and without the full emotional kick that this maestro is capable of.
Were this film brought to us by anyone else, we’d be hailing a great talent…but as an offering from a filmmaking legend, it’s just a collection of moments, some of which work better than others.
One stand-out moment in the film is the scene where Powers’ U-2 is shot out of the sky. As his plane begins to come apart, he stalls just long enough on his emergency procedures to force a precarious position. The attempt to execute the order of self-destructing a plane that’s falling from the sky finds Powers clinging to its hull as it falls from the heavens. The shot is clearly a nod to the finale of DR. STRANGELOVE, where Major Kong rides a nuclear bomb as it tumbles to earth. The beauty of the reference is the way it points to an absurd moment in film history, but puts a very perilous spin on the situation. The Cold War was a truly absurd time in the history of our planet…but indeed one that was very perilous as well.
Seeing one master invoke another master is reason alone to watch a film like BRIDGE OF SPIES.
The knock on a film like BRIDGE OF SPIES is that it’s a lot of scenes featuring men talking in rooms. That knock is irrefutable, since aside from a moment or two of political scenery, that’s exactly what this film is. However, as political and axe-grinding as those conversations are, they serve a reassuring purpose. They tell us that there are some in the world who still believe in some measure of diplomacy. They believe that while the powers that be will flex their military might by aiming their missiles and making their threats, that the real power comes from talking things through. It comes through finding ways for everybody to walk away feeling like they lost something, but still saving face.
In short – BRIDGE OF SPIES is about standing for something in the face all others. It’s about holding tight to your principles when even your allies are questioning it being the right decision. In this century, we have watched our world leaders turn their backs on the doctrines that we are supposed to believe in above all else. They seem to believe that because one person is an enemy, they are not entitled to the same human rights we say we defend.
Standing up for it – standing up to our opponents and even our allies takes conviction, patience, and humanity. We like to believe we are capable of it all, but when a hero like Donovan is so reviled in his community, how can we truly believe that?