Sometimes it’s difficult for directors to go from action-packed blockbusters to simpler, more dialogue-driven pieces and make both of them worth seeing. Sometimes we are all so used to Steven Spielberg’s blockbusters (Jurassic Park, Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, ect.), that we don’t realize that his less action driven pieces, such as his new film Bridge of Spies, can be just as action full. Their action is just a little more subtle, maybe even less enjoyable, but definitely worth the trip to the theater, and they keep Spielberg in the game after 27 projects.
Bridge of Spies takes place during the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and America are both at each other’s throats and afraid of what the other country might do. A Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested, and insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks, in his fourth collaboration with Spielburg) is hired to defend him in court (though most Americans see this as a thankless, if not traitorous, task). Not long afterwards an American spy pilot is shot down in Soviet territory and an American economics student is arrested on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in Germany. Donovan is charged with negotiating a trade with both countries, though the trade of Abel for the pilot only pleases the Russians (who want their spy back before he reveals any information) and trading Abel for the student only pleases East Germany, who want to be seen doing business with other high-power nations.
2015 has ended up being a golden year for spy movies- we’ve seen Spy, Spectre, Sicario, Mortdecai, Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, and even Kingsman: The Secret Service (first shown in 2014, though technically released in 2015). Most, if not all, of these spy films have been heavy on the action with stunts, tricks and gun fights, and that’s what we have come to expect from movies about spies. Bridge of Spies isn’t that kind of movie- we weren’t expecting Kingsman level of action of course, not a biopic that stars Tom Hanks. But this movie has very little action at all, it doesn’t even have much in the way of spying- it’s all boardrooms and discussions with double meanings, trying to decide how far someone is willing to compromise. It’s pointed out that Hanks isn’t a criminal lawyer, he’s an insurance lawyer- he’s not in charge for the action, but the ability to feel out liabilities, to figure out how much to be on his country’s future. Hanks leads the dialogue for its intensity, not for it’s ability to survive a gunfight.
That being said, this script is Tom Hanks heavy- and I do mean heavy. Very few other characters are given the opportunity to develop themselves because the script relies so heavily on Hanks’ character. The two American prisoners, Francis Gary Powers and Frederic Pryor (played by Austin Stowell and Will Rogers respectively), while integral to the script, are given very little screentime. We see the Soviet spy Abel only for a little more than half the film, and his story is limited to what he choses to share with Hanks (though as a spy, we can maybe forgive his lack of background). We see bits and pieces of the story of Hanks’ family and his assistant (who disappears halfway through the film), but again, the story is centered on Hanks. Sure he has the star power to pull us through it, but a part of me does wish that the film had given us more of an insight to other pieces of the story. We could have seen more of Hanks’ family’s adjustment to him being the man defending the country’s enemy personified. We could have seen the terror and anxiousness of the prisoners far from home. We even could have seen the feelings between the countries, Russians who hated America and more Americans angry at Russians. We are treated to a school class’ reaction to preparing for an attack, and we saw the pain the Berlin Wall caused. But these were just drops in the bucket of a very Hanks-filled script.
Bridges of Spies is very well done artistically- I was particularly impressed with many of the transitions in the film, where scenes happening in two, maybe three, different places were blended together by shared circumstances, emphasizing the similarities between the different levels of the war. And the scenes shot of East Berlin were haunting- the erection of the Berlin Wall, the pain of those separated by it, and even the fear that caused people to try and cross it were expertly portrayed. I saw this film with a veteran who was stationed during the Cold War, and other than a few minor details of what he was seeing, he said that the film’s accuracy was almost spot on. Without even knowing more than the bare minimum about the war, I could feel the realism.
This is not a spy movie where people hang out of planes, nor is it a spy movie where a villain is threatening to destroy the world with the press of a button. This is a spy movie of countries with secrets, a movie where the real danger is the fear that could lead to a nuclear fallout if the wrong secrets ended up in the wrong hands. It is talking, not fighting, but that’s somehow better. The tension and excitement is not cheapened by convoluted plots or clever puns. This is the story of one man, his foundation as an American, and his determination to save more than just one man.
Tom Hanks gets sassy. Just saying.