Steven Spielberg‘s Bridge Of Spies (Dreamworks, 10.16) isn’t half bad — a sombre, dialogue-driven, fact-based spy tale. It’s a little Spielbergy in the second half (i.e., visual punctuations or signatures that feel a bit pushed or manipulative) but not in ways that I would call excessive or tedious. It’s aimed at the over-40 crowd as younger auds will most likely steer clear. The only obvious stand-out, Oscar-worthy attribute is Mark Rylance‘s droll supporting performance as real-life Russian spy Rudolf Abel, but it’s a keeper. Rylance owns this movie the way Jane Fonda owns Youth; he may very well snag a BSA nomination.
Regular HE readers know how I feel about Spielberg, and I’m telling you I didn’t feel as if I was suffering through this at all. Half of Spies is actually pretty good and the other half is…well, in and out but basically tolerable. From me that’s almost a rave. And I don’t think that’s proportional. This is not a “great” film but a smart and mostly satisfying one, especially if you’re getting older and fatter and have a few faded memories of the days when Russian commmies were the big baddies.
Tom Hanks, once again portraying a walking emblem for American front-porch decency and Atticus Finch-style values, is James B. Donovan, the late American attorney who defended Abel after his arrest in ’57, and then, following the 1960 Russian capture of U2 spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, was asked to fly to Berlin to negotiate for Powers’ release by swapping him for Abel. Donovan also managed to free wrongly accused academic Frederic Pryor, whom the East Germans were holding on suspicion of espionage.
Spies is basically two espionage flicks, the first and best taking place in New York City in the late ’50s and the second occuring in Berlin in ’61 and early ’62. The Spielbergy stuff starts to kick in during the second half, and when it happens you’ll say to yourself “okay, here we go…time for Spielberg to remind us every so often what a great and exacting cinematic composer he can be.” What’s so great about part one (i.e., the New York chapter) is that Spielberg doesn’t insert any conspicuously brilliant flourishes at all, or at least none that demanded my attention.
You may or may not remember a 90-minute ABC series called Arrest and Trial, half of which was about catching the bad guys and the other half was about defending or prosecuting them. Apply this scheme to Bridge of Spies and you have a movie called Defend and Negotiate — i.e., defend the guilty Russian spy (a much trimmer and tighter film than part 2) and then negotiate with this and that Russian or East German apparatchik for the American pilot’s release by offering to swap him for the guilty Russki.
Bridge of Spies is basically Spielberg in a kind of dial-down mode, doing the old diplomacy-and-espionage thing in a quiet and measured way and managing, I have to admit, reasonably decent levels of efficiency. At no time did I feel irritated or annoyed by this, which is unusual for me. Okay, certain scenes felt a bit over-emphasized but you can’t expect Spielberg to restrain himself totally.
Spies has definitely been Janusz Kaminski‘ed all to hell with an accent on dark bluish-gray tones mixed with little dabs of amber, and occasional white-blotchlight pouring through windows and saturating the shit out of the furniture, but that’s par for the course in Spielbergland. Kaminski loves those blues and grays and blacks. It doesn’t seem to matter what the subject or the mood may be — these are Kaminski’s colors, his tones…the way he needs to paint.
I don’t know what else to say except to repeat that I really didn’t mind Spies for the most part, and that Rylance’s performance, a wonderfully minimalist, gentle, settled-down thing, deserves applause from the SAG and Academy crowd. I think it’s probably a safe bet that at least a few critics groups will chime in starting in early December.
Note: Apologies for not editing this piece to my full satisfaction until Monday morning. I had to do a sitdown interview last night around 7:30 pm, and resultantly had to finish and post this review (embargo went up at 8 pm) before it was ready.