Don’t you love it when a movie exhibits the mastery and growth of a director? That’s the first ten minutes of Bridge of Spies (2015). We open on 1957 Brooklyn, where a calm, older fellow paints in a small hotel room. He receives a call, says nothing, and goes to a park, but is followed all the way there. He doesn’t realize this. He picks up something on his journey, what we soon learn is a note. He’s a spy, and just as soon as we understand that, the FBI breaks in and arrests this man, one Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Everything about this sequence is engrossing, from the patient camerawork to the restrained editing; from the silence of the sound to the silence of the shots; from the preternaturally subtle acting of Mark Rylance to the exasperated tension of the trailing FBI agents. This is director Steven Spielberg at his best and most mature, someone who isn’t afraid to let the audience piece things together and thus earn the associated emotional responses.
Don’t you hate it when a movie exhibits the hackery and stagnation of a director? That’s the rest of Bridge of Spies. That moment when Rylance tries to deliver a decent-albeit-on-the-nose parable about a man who never gives up, but the score is so bombastic that it feels more like the climax of a Frank Capra film? Classic Spielberg. When every shot for the first third of the movie is as dynamic as a Wine and Canvas masterpiece? Classic Spielberg. When you try to play a scene for dramatic tension, but make it so obvious what’ll happen anyway because you’re that kind of director? Spielberg, Spielberg, Spielberg.
I do not feel strongly about Spielberg, having seen and passively enjoyed more than a few of his movies. Some of them are prime examples of fun-yet-thoughtful cinema. But watching Bridge of Spies, I was constantly reminded how average and boring he is as a filmmaker. I struggle to think of a shot in this movie that was unique, or a scene after the opener that did something interesting. Further, I struggle to think of a character besides Abel who isn’t a non-character defined exclusively by their jobs and over-simplified beliefs. The protagonist, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), is a stand-up American and a good lawyer. After all, the first 45 minutes are dedicated to showing just how much he believes in what’s right despite all those caricatures telling him otherwise! Outside of that, though? Who knows. If he’s in a scene, he’s talking about how he’s got to do the right thing, or lawyer-talking to others so that they’ll do the same. Any depth is a byproduct of Hanks’ performance rather than a decent script.
Actually, perhaps I’m being unfair to the script, written by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman. That type of semi-static character is what works as a great baseline for a lot of Coen films, because they often use that one-dimensional look at the person to expose something about the film world, and thus reveal more about the character. But here, we have the shallowness with none of the meticulously constructed cinematic world for the character to interact with. The depiction of 1950s America and Berlin might as well be a cut-and-paste of scenes from previous Cold War flicks, but with none of the camerawork to make it remotely interesting. Classic Spielberg.
What is it about this 135-minute movie that warrants its praise as a tense Cold War thriller? Well, it definitely takes place during the Cold War. And it’s a “Cold War Thriller” in that the same things in Bridge of Spies have been done in countless other films from that genre. But there are no thrills to be had when the stakes are so low. The cinematography does nothing to engage you, and you know Spielberg won’t take a chance and maybe challenge you as a viewer. The only deaths we get are the exploitative shootings of people trying to get over the Berlin Wall, in one of the laziest recent examples of the Drive-By Observation of Injustice trope.
I could forgive a script riddled with cliches, perhaps, if they at least contributed to something more meaningful. Well, minus the beaten-horse scenes of the press swarming people outside of a court room, or the low-angle shot of the Air Force pilots walking together. But forgetting the cliches (besides those scenes…and, well, several more), we get at best muddled themes and occasionally contradictory ones. There are numerous parallels drawn between the US and the USSR, from the similar prejudices of its agents of the law and justice, to the military tactics, to repeated (or reworked) shots. This theme, that we weren’t terribly different from our enemies, is hackneyed, especially in the Cold War context. But further, Spielberg appears to go back and forth on it. We’re similar, but then Donovan sees kids jumping over fences in Brooklyn, whereas he saw people getting shot on fences in Berlin. The US doesn’t torture Abel, but the USSR sure does torture their American prisoners. Am I missing something obvious? Or is Spielberg just tapping into parallelism to seem smart rather than ask any interesting questions?
My favorite, though, is Donovan’s adage that he delivers to SPOILERS FOR THE ONE PERSON WHO CAN’T FIGURE OUT WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN IN THIS MOVIE Powers, the rescued American pilot. Powers is reviled by even his fellow countrymen because he didn’t kill himself, instead being captured and tortured by the Russians. No one will look at him. He didn’t reveal any US secrets, he tells Donovan, but the cunning American lawyer informs him that the only thing that matters is what you think of yourself. Maybe this was meant to be ironic, but it comes across as hollow when the two resolutions—the rest of the movie—are centered on his family and strangers accepting him as a person and American. Mind you, it’s not that they’ve come to accept his actions; it’s that he’s finally done something “American,” rather than that “giving someone due process” crap. END SPOILERS FOR YOU, WHOEVER YOU ARE So, either the movie manages to contradict its own moral within minutes, or it is ironically saying, “No, dude, it totally matters how people perceive you. That’s the most important part.” I can’t tell which is worse.
Finally, if I might nitpick two details: first, I can only assume that the numerous characters catching colds when most involved in the hell of the Cold War is some…pun?…on the Cold War infecting people. That, or it’s an extraneous, weirdly repeated detail. Either way, that gets two eye rolls out of two. Second, if you end your “Based on True Events” movie with text explanations of what happened to the characters, then you likely don’t have faith in your own movie. You made a film that’s about a specific story and specific people because you thought that was interesting. By taking away from an actual resolution for the characters and story to tell us unrelated information that happened decades later, you demonstrate zero confidence in your narrative. You think that people won’t be satisfied unless they know the conclusion of the characters’ lives, because clearly the story being based on true events is the key. But really, those people have nothing to do with who we saw in the film. We saw characters, and I care about their story. Do I want to know what happened to Abel? Sure. Do I think it’s at all an important part of the narrative? Absolutely not.
Weirdly, despite the previous 1200 words, I didn’t hate this movie. However, I did find it average to the point of rage-inducing. If this were a debut by a director, I might be more forgiving, although pretty much all of these criticisms would stand. But when Spielberg continues to do this, and he continues to be appraised for it…well, I can’t help but be annoyed with the excessive mundanity. If a first-year film student needed a movie with low-hanging fruit to decontextualize, then I’d point them in the direction of this movie. If anyone else was looking for something to watch, I’d tell them to steer clear.