In general, I’m not a big fan of holding artists accountable to the standard set by their best work. Making something “good” after making something “great,” doesn’t mean that the good thing is any less objectively good or that the great thing is any more great. What I’m trying to say is, Bridge of Spies is a perfectly good movie from a titan of cinema whose resume is littered with greatness. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
In a way, Bridge of Spies is two separate but connected movies. The first is an optimistic courtroom defense of the principles that define America, and the second is a methodical, plodding series of negotiations over the trading of captured spies. If Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was a dense ode to a defining American moment, Bridge of Spies is the director’s view of authentic Americanism. The first half is a pledge of allegiance, and the second is a stark comparison of our nation’s alleged values compared with dark alternatives.
Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance attorney who is asked to return to criminal work and defend a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), caught at the height of the Cold War. Donovan is sought both for his experience during the Nuremberg Trials but also because his by-the-book determinism will play out in the public like a demonstration of the superiority of American law to Communist law. Donovan instantly takes a shine to Abel, and what was to be a pantomimed legal brawl turns into a real one, as the lawyer takes the battle all the way to the Supreme Court.
When an American pilot is shot down over Soviet territory, back-channelled communications suggest willingness for an exchange. If the first half was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the second half is Mr. Smith Goes to East Berlin, as Hanks emotes his best Jimmy Stewart earnestness in trying to free not only the downed pilot but a college student seized by the Germans. The trailers may sell a tense thriller, but unless you count Hanks being talked out of his overcoat by the politest gang of ruffians imaginable, it’s less “thrilling” and more “interesting.”
Unequivocally, the worst part of the film hasn’t been mentioned. The talented, brilliant Amy Ryan plays Donovan’s wife. She gets to nag him in one scene, worry about him in another and then doe-eyed smile at how aw-shucks awesome her hubby is. It’s a misuse so criminal I want charges brought. Also not-as-great is the film’s general lack of momentum. It never feels like an escalation or a natural progression so much as a humdrum “here’s what happened next.”
That said, Rylance’s understated Abel is a scene-stealer, Hanks’ likability has rarely been as well used and Spielberg’s thesis is one of genuine-but-muted patriotism. Oh, and the strangest thing comes at the very end. It’s not a spoiler, I swear. Explanatory text over the film’s final frames describes the real-life Donovan’s freeing of nearly 10,000 Americans from Cuba through negotiations with Fidel Castro. Quick question: Um, why aren’t we watching a movie about that?
Grade = B