Review: Bridge of Spies

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The chief dichotomy of the American legal system is that which pertains to guilt and the truth. Both may coincide, but neither is inherently synonymous with the other. The objective is to win the case, and if the truth manages to sync up, then all the better, or perhaps not. So what happens when one’s case is seemingly lost from the starting line, and further, has the potential to ignite international ramifications? In the 1950’s, there was no clearer enemy to the United States than the Soviet Union, and as the Cold War gathered heat, one spark could set both nations ablaze. With spies on both sides, it was a time where seemingly black and white outlooks dissolved into murkier grays, a thematic concern that has attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg as of late. As is the director’s wont, Bridge of Spies might be too on the nose, but its composed, assured filmmaking supports a morally conscious center.

Rudolf Abel’s (Mark Rylance) passion is for painting. His profession is espionage. The works of art that populate Abel’s modest Brooklyn apartment are imbued with as much attention to detail as his ability to decode messages secretly hidden for him on unsuspecting park benches. Unbeknownst to Abel, the FBI have been following him and now are ready to move in and take him into custody. Exceedingly mild mannered and unfussy, Abel readily acquiesces when agents burst into his apartment, fully prepared for whatever fate awaits him. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is appointed as his lawyer, a thankless job given the mountain of evidence pointed against the Soviet national. Even the judge and accusation pity Donovan, whose legal background primarily consists of insurance work. Yet the lawyer refuses to be belittled, even as he knows the entire nation likely despises him for representing a communist. He respects Abel enough to demand he sees a fair trial, no matter how biased everyone else may be. Things suddenly become quite complicated when news breaks of an American U-2 pilot in the hands of the Soviets. Donovan is then recruited to negotiate an exchange of both spies, but the only location agreed upon is the one place that Cold War tensions could reach a breaking point: Berlin.

The nearly wordless first ten minutes of Bridge of Spies are as masterful as anything Steven Spielberg has ever directed. Simply put, Spielberg’s visual storytelling sensibilities are among the very best today, and this opening sequence of Abel being followed by FBI agents throughout the day is full of terrific, subtle reversals all leading up to the spy’s unflattering capture. The rest of the film isn’t quite as visually driven because of all of the obligatory legal maneuvering, but the script from Matt Charman and the Coen brothers keeps things moving stateside. When the film moves to Berlin, another wrinkle is added when an American student is taken into German custody and Donovan tries to work him into the deal. The film may be based on actual events, but the inclusion of the student in the narrative lacks investment and feels extraneous. Much of what occurs in Bridge of Spies is quite serious business, with several different characters pontificating idealistically on a myriad of themes, which does have a tendency to belabor the point. Fortunately, there is also enough humor injected at the right moments to keep it from getting tedious.

Tom Hanks is as dependable as one could ask, shouldering the moral weight of the film as he is beset on all sides by single minded partisans. Mark Rylance is something of a low key scene stealer, with an unremarkable deadpan playing to great effect even in the most dubious of situations. Bridge of Spies finds its resonance in the unlikely relationship between these two men, both of whom are resolute in their purposes. An early admiring monologue from Rylance to Hanks is classically Spielbergian, meaningful yet restrained. This film marks Spielberg’s first without longtime  composer John Williams, which suggests the largely unsentimental tone. Thomas Newman fills in here with an unobtrusive score, only used for emotional punctuation at key junctures. The majority of Spielberg’s other collaborators are present, from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski continuing his masterful interior lighting, to editor Michael Kahn finding a good pace for a film that mostly involves men talking in rooms.

There’s no questioning Spielberg’s technical credentials at this point, but it’s also a pleasure to see him still expanding his own boundaries as he approaches seventy. While he’s always been a master of the medium, Spielberg has primarily been known from making films of absolutes, where the final outcome is definitive. Ambiguity has never really been his forte, up until the last decade or so. This film continues a more recent trend in Spielberg’s dramas of moral ambiguity even in the face of personal peril. Bridge of Spies might not be a major achievement for Spielberg, but that is not a slight, for its shades of gray suggest that even after decades of storytelling, we still have more to discover.

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~ by romancinema on October 17, 2015.

One Response to “Review: Bridge of Spies”

  1. Reblogged this on IndiePulse Music .

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