Review: Bridge of Spies

Bridge-of-Spies In Steven Spielberg's latest reunion with one of his best actor pairings, Tom Hanks, we take a very uniquely phrased look at a specific juncture in the long history of the Cold War. Specifically, the film Bridge Of Spies concerns the events of the U-2 incident involving a prisoner trade between the Soviets and the United States. This film was produced with an array of master talents: directed by Spielberg, led by Hanks, written by the Coen brothers as well as newcomer Matt Charman. What results is a masterfully crafted movie, however, one that suffers a deficiency of a cohesive narrative tone. The way the history and characters of the movie are represented does not lend itself fully to the potential emotional impact of the narrative it concerns, restricting a movie that is extremely well made from the realm greatness, but keeping it certainly very enjoyable.

Hanks takes on the role of James B. Donovan, a New York attorney originally recruited to provide competent legal defense for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played in a hilarious turn by Mark Rylance) who then must negotiate a prisoner exchange with his own client for captured American spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (played in an adequate if not spectacular fashion by Austin Stowell) and American student caught in East Germany during the rise of the Berlin wall, Frederic Pryor (played by Will Rogers well enough, though he wasn’t given enough screen time to excel). While Donovan is the only character given enough screen time to properly parse his motives, there are a slew of supporting characters that shine when they do grace the screen. Specifically, Amy Ryan provides a standard but well executed performance as Donovan’s wife, a sort of perfect encapsulation of the sixties housewife that is fleshed out by her overpowering empathy.

However, it is the transient nature of these supporting characters that adds to the disjointed sense of the script, as characters who will seemingly play a large part in the movie early on (such as Donovan’s assistant Doug Forrester, played by Billy Magnussen) almost disappear completely, with no reference to them later on. The German associates of Frederic Pryor, specifically his love interest, are given emotionally powerful scenes that almost lose their influence on the audience as they are displayed once and then never referenced directly by the characters.

It seems that perhaps there was a divide in writing, as the dialogue of the characters (while fun, playful and generally interesting) doesn’t quite ever seem to sync up with the tone of the narrative at any given point in the movie. The Coen Brother feel is definitely palpable in this movie, specifically in the way the characters interact and communicate with each other. It takes on an almost surreal tone, at times while watching the movie I even wanted to describe it as goofy, as a comedic tone really suffuses and almost invades the drama as it plays out.

The nature of this characterization is truly revealed when various other characters come in and out of focus as the three players in this exchange are introduced: the United States, Soviet Russia, and the East German government. Each of these entities has a character ascribed to it for the purposes of negotiation and representation, however, assigning whole political bodies to single characters cheapens the overall depiction as characters become almost gimmicky in their simplicity. Donovan is America’s honorable and up-standing boy scout, champion of American liberties and social justice. East Germany is given an intermediary in the character of Wolfgang Vogel, however their true characterization comes through the bumbling and sensitive bureaucrat Harald Ott. Meanwhile, the Soviets come across as mischievous tricksters via the portrayal of their main representative, a man whose motives are both mysterious and somehow sinister, Ivan Schischkin.

These simple portrayals really hurt the movie where it counts, its emotional thrust. By employing stereotypes on every level, interactions are made entertaining but without any real compelling content to them. The plot moves along well enough, but visages of a war torn Eastern Germany are juxtaposed oddly with funny scenes emphasizing Donovan’s fish out of water nature. The very subject of the movie seems to want to emphasize the dramatic nature of these interactions, the way they can the expanded to reference the Cold War as a whole, even the denigration of humanity is touched on as we see a few scenes of people trying to escape East Germany with disturbing results. However, none of these very serious and valid emotions are fully revealed, they always seem to get muddled up in writing that fits a character-driven comedy more than a serious look at the effect the Cold War had on real people.

While this film is an excellently made one, audiences have come to expect a certain caliber of movie from Spielberg, especially when he has so many other big names attached to his project. However, the product we get is a lot more The Terminal than it is Lincoln, and while a comedic and light-hearted approach to such a serious subject is refreshing, it almost seems out of place. A film with an incredibly interesting story punctuated with Spielberg’s classic cinematic and story-telling skill is ultimately tainted by a confusingly flippant and glib tonality. This creates a strange dichotomy of superficial characterization against serious and compelling content that never quite resolves itself in the film and left me wanting more from such a stellar collection of talents.

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