Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

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A lawyer assigned to defending a Soviet spy during the Cold War is then asked to negotiate an exchange of said spy for an American soldier found over enemy lines.

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Steven Spielberg, 2015

In the late 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, soft-spoken Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is caught on American soil. Insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is selected to provide the spy with a legal defence, though no-one expects him to actually put any effort into defending Abel, least of all the incredibly biased judge. Abel and Donovan strike up an unlikely friendship and Donovan takes his job seriously, in spite of the cost to his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and family. This relationship with Abel contributes to the CIA’s decision to recruit Donovan to coordinate an exchange of prisoners when the Russians capture an American: Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), whose high-tech intelligence-gathering plane is shot down over Russian soil. Donovan travels to Berlin to negotiate the deal, crossing from the West to the East while the wall is being built and tensions are running high.

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Does Steven Spielberg ever do anything fun or new anymore? Bridge of Spies feels like a movie that’s stuck in the 50s. It’s slick as hell and it has some interesting moments in amongst the history lessons, but it’s so, so white and male and meandering. It feels like two films put together – by the time you get to the end, the long trial that starts the film feels like an eternity ago. This is a shame, because Mark Rylance is easily the best part of this film. His Russian spy is the single most interesting, sympathetic character in the film, and his fate is the only one that generates genuine tension. This movie is strangely lacking in tension; you never really get the feeling that there’s any genuine threat to Donovan, who the audience should feel is in way over his head. Instead, the CIA look like a bunch of bumbling idiots next to him. Only a Russian intelligence agent and East German lawyer are on his level, but they aren’t in the film much. A lot of characters drift in and out of this film, even though it feels like they should be more important; eventually, it’s just confusing to try to figure out who’s who in this massive game. This confusion could work in the film’s favour if it felt like Donovan was equally confused. Tom Hanks is fine, but the role only comes to life a few times, and the storyline with his family feels forced and fake.

The collaboration between uber-traditional director Steven Spielberg and quirky writers the Coen brothers makes for an uneasy union. Where the Coens are all about dark humour and upended expectations, Spielberg is an old-school storyteller, wanting every set-up to pay off predictably. There are a few scenes that feel very Coen-esque that work well. The best of these introduces Rudolf Abel’s fake East German “family”, terrible overactors who completely throw Donovan off and leave him fighting for purchase for once. For the most part the writers and the director seem to be at odds, though, delivering an unsatisfying product. Also, this movie is incredibly, regressively sexist, and contains very few actors of colour, all of whom are in subservient positions. The women are wives and secretaries, most of whom are reduced to carrying men’s hats for most of their screentime. It’s pretty appalling, especially knowing Spielberg can do better, though both Spielberg and the Coens are pretty conservative on that front. Bridge of Spies has a few laughs and interesting moments, but not nearly enough to sustain its bloated run time.

Bridge of Spies on IMDb

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