Bridge Of Spies (2015)
What’s that, a new Spielberg movie you say? Has Christmas come early with this frosty Cold War chiller thriller? Well, judging by the general tone of the reviews my radar picked up on social media Bridge Of Spies is one of Steve’s more warmly received recent efforts, with the prospect of a Coen brothers polish on Matt Charman’s original treatment an essential asset for all competing agencies. Under threat of torture I have a secret list, a mental microfiche of those directors whose films I will go and see at the flicks as a matter of habit, the big-hitters whose impact on my movie mastery has made me the man I am today. It doesn’t matter who’s starring in them, it doesn’t matter what genre they operate in, it doesn’t even particularly matter what the film seems to be about, I just know that these are the guys (and yes, I admit it, they are almost all guys which I’m not proud of) whose work formulate an evolving and important body of work, whose achievements are fascinating to measure as their career develops, to judge how their style and themes mature as the years slip away. From that golden era of American film when Spielberg rose to prominence you can add in Scorsese, Schrader, Malick, Coppola and Lynch, although admittedly I tend to give Marty’s documentaries big screen berth as I’m not the worlds biggest Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan fan. More recently my periscope has been trained on Jeff Nichols, Sean Durkin, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola and Kelly Reichardt whom have arisen through independent waters, alongside established 1990’s Sundance castaways like Soderbergh, Jarmusch, Todd Haynes and Richard Linklater. Then there’s Mickey Mann, the Coen lads, Davy Fincher, Pauly T.Anderson and Chrissy Nolan, those thermonuclear assets whose style and deployments really butter my beans. A more recent recruit is Alfonso Cuarón who is one of the great modern craftsmen, and yeah, I guess I have a thing for Iñarritu, as it’s just occurred to me that I’ve seen and reviewed every one of English language pictures. I’ll always keep a detached and dismembered eye on genre stalwarts del Toro, Cronenberg and SF supernova Jimmy Cameron, alongside a general overview of the horror and supernatural genre to detect any promising talents. In asymmetric alignment there’s a cluster of the esoteric such as Peter Strickland, Jonathan Glazer and Nicholas Winding-Refn and from the foreign language legion there’s always Haneke & Herzog , Von Trier, Bong Joon-ho, Park Chan-wook and Gaspar Noé, and finally our Japanese rearguard kamikaze’s Sion Sono, Takashi Mike and Kyoshi Kuroswa, although good luck tracking some of their films down even in cinema rich London. There’s plenty more whose work I follow with considered interest – Thomas Alfredson, Peter Jackson, Ang Lee, Kathryn Bigelow, Tarantino, Verhoeven, Edgar Wright, Wes Anderson and Sam Raimi, although I’m bound to have omitted a dozen, probably two dozen others but here we are. That was a rather circuitous route to Spielberg’s latest mission but I think we’ve shaken those goons off our tail, not to get on with real business of examining Bridge Of Spies which for me never quite reaches its initial promise.
You can loosely parse Spielberg’s work into the historical yarns, the franchise entries and the B movie genre epics which are adrenalized with a lacquer of CGI spectacle and wonder, Bridge Of Spies cleaves closer to the measured firmament of Munich or Saving Private Ryan, a considered and closely observed entertainment from a sure hand who recently breached his fifth decade of filmmaking. Reuniting with Hanks in their fourth collaboration as Spielberg’s Capraesque principled and decent ‘murican Tom plays James Donovan, a likeable and effective insurance lawyer who is saddled with the unenvious task of defending the treasonous Rudolph Abel, a spy portrayed with a stoic intensity by theatre actor Mark Rylance in a rare screen appearance. We first meet Abel in a deftly executed near wordless opening sequence which mutely expresses the mechanics of espionage, it’s 1957 and the Cold War is well and truly freezing over as communist witch hunts, pervasive paranoia & duck and cover are the parlance of the psyche. Donovan is charged with ensuring that Abel is given a fair and transparent trial as an exemplar of American justice and a beacon of obedience to liberty on the world stage, while behind closed doors the case is considered a foregone conclusion, much to the mild protestations of the constitutionally charged Donovan. Simultaneously the emphasis shifts to incorporate the US clandestine creeping, specifically the launch of their new state of the art U2 reconnaissance technology. When one of their assets is shot down over enemy territory and US serviceman seized by the Soviets both parties come to a hesitant head, as a possible prisoner exchange is mooted in the still scarred ruins of Berlin. Donovan as a private US citizen has a non-affiliated government mandate to negotiate the exchange, but as the divisive Berlin wall goes up other American citizens are caught in the chilly crossfire…
The primary problem with Bridge Of Spies is a misdirected emphasis. Spielberg seems more fascinated and attuned to the paraphernalia of his 1950’s childhood than he is in injecting a sense of paranoia or menace to the diplomatic divinations, so this is quite a light hearted and almost flippant film despite the neutron laced apocalyptic stakes. The Coens fingerprints are apparent in some recurring character gags and an almost buffoonish Communist stasi state, with certain characters verging on near cartoon parody. As such the film is breezy rather than bitter, a fine concept that mostly worked for light hearted fare such as Burn After Reading, but Spielberg seems uncertain of this tenor which veers from the humorous to the severe without quite defining a clear mission statement. The first half is primarily a courtroom drama without the grandstanding theatrics, apart from a few patriotically wrought scored speeches from Donovan which sees Spielberg at his most hectoring and saccharine. The second half defects into a more traditional, hyperborean Berlin thriller, all gloomy greys and sketetal industrial husks of the Nazi capital still decaying a mere decade since the conclusion of the war. But for all these misgivings I still enjoyed the film, Hanks as Donovan is always good company even if he muddles rather than strides through his mission to the inevitable and well choreographed finale. It’s a glossy piece of work crafted by consummate professionals, a film which maintains a mainline delivery vector that just never really soars from the launchpad. There are some vague nods to doubling and identity which are suggested through careful camera movements and composition, the start of some deeper motives and commentary, even if like some pathological lecturer Steve can’t resist battering us over the head with a redundant coda – normality is restored, equilibrium is regained, not quite the geopolitical reality by the time of the early 1960’s with Cuba, the Bay Of Pigs and Dallas lurking on the horizon.
Although Spielberg is treading water with Bridge Of Spies one of the joys of spying on a director is also appreciating his frequent collaborators,witnessing their careers and craft similarly evolve, and the bearded one is no exception. Although his obvious aural accomplice John Williams is MIA his cameraman Jausz Kamiński is on point, bathing the screen in lattices of cold steel and blown out backlighting, so at the very least there are some pretty moments to coo over. Similarly editor Michael Khan keeps a fairly linear plot parsed down to a sleek trajectory, with some amusing mood and match cuts that keep the story flow fluid and functional. As usual they all turn in highly professional, state of the art work in Bridge Of Spies, not experimenting but maintaining an even keel as the narrative patiently moves through murky and muddy waters. With the BFG next on Spielberg’s manifesto I can’t say I’m overly excited, I’d much rather he was meddling in genre fare with the long mooted Robopocalypse, although Ready Player One has been officially announced for 2017. t hope this this recent run of efficient yet modally average films – Lincoln, Warhorse and to a lesser degree Tintin are all a precursor to one final masterpiece, but his 21st century efforts all seem an increasingly distant paraphernalia of parsecs from the wonder warped and thermonuclear emotions he mustered in the likes of E.T., CE3K or even the first Jurassic Park back in 1993. If you’re content with a film which could comfortably pass a overcast November Sunday afternoon then you could do worse than Bridge Of Spies, but we’ll stay in the 1950’s for our next film which is one of the highlights of the year;