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NYFF ’15: ‘Bridge of Spies’ is a compelling history lesson that has the potential to be more

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Bridge of Spies
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Directed by Steven Spielberg
USA, 2015

In Steven Spielberg’s continuous efforts to recreate historic wars on the big screen, he’s chosen a seemingly less visual war this time around. While the Cold War can make for compelling cinema, a substantial amount of effort is required to make a convincing and successfully engaging Cold War drama. Bridge of Spies delivers for the most part, but ultimately ends up falling into the sameness that many recent Spielberg films have. But as a film in its own right, it does offer an intriguing true story, a standout performance, and a script worthy of being paired with Spielberg’s seminal directing.

The end credits reveal who wrote the screenplay, two out of the three names belonging to dynamic duo Joel and Ethan Coen. Not the first writers who come to mind to pen a Spielberg film (at least one from the last ten years), but it’s a good thing they did. The script follows a procedural narrative familiar in most of Spielberg’s work, but it’s alleviated by witty dialogue and occasional doses of situational humor that work due to the spot-on delivery by the actors.

Tom Hanks plays insurance lawyer James Donovan, who’s randomly given the task of representing an alleged Soviet spy living in New York. It’s an attempt by the US government to prove that they give everyone a fair shake in court, including foreign spies. But of course they get touchy when Donovan sticks to the rulebook, i.e. the U.S. constitution. After an American spy pilot is captured by the Soviets, Donovan is assigned to negotiate a swap of the two prisoners in East Berlin.

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Donovan is the main character one would expect in this type of story (and a Spielberg movie): the reluctant hero who inevitably proves that he is an exceptionally good person. Tom Hanks plays the role with extreme ease, portraying a man bound by his impeccable morals, but it never goes beyond anything that hasn’t been seen before. His comedic timing is worth noting, however, as it keeps the film from being overrun with too much angst. The real revelation, however, is Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolph Abel. His character is so dependent on subtlety and Rylance does an outstanding job conveying that personality with mostly just his facial expressions. It’s captivating to watch Hanks and Rylance on screen together, both coming from different acting backgrounds and yet complementing each other so well, making their scenes the most compelling.

Spielberg’s films have always delivered strong beginnings that immediately demand attention. Having Rudolph Abel be the first character the audience meets establishes the movie’s tone and his importance as a character. First seen as a simple painter living in Brooklyn, he becomes of high interest to the CIA. Donovan is technically the main character, but the audience is shown right off the bat that none of these events would have happened without Abel as he’s taken in by the feds. It’s somewhat risky starting the film which such an outwardly unremarkable character. With the writing and Rylance’s performance, Abel develops into a sympathetic character. It’s hard not to root for him despite his actions.

After the strong opening sequence, the rest of the movie lives up to that type of filmmaking only in certain moments, never as a whole. It’s clearly put together with care, yet there’s a cinematic gloss enveloping it, as is the case with most of Spielberg’s recent films. The quality is almost too polished, filtering out any true grit. The scenes in Berlin come the closest to real-life roughness, but it’s a little too precise. The directing is also careful but oozes experience with a significant use of low camera angles and plotting shots that require extensive blocking. There are instances where certain shots stand apart, mostly due to expert framing and composition. There’s no doubt that technique is well executed because Spielberg has done this type of film before. Maybe that’s why there’s no freshness to it. It’s found mostly in the acting, specifically Rylance’s performance.

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The rest of the ensemble, while all good actors, sadly is not given enough material to truly shine next to Abel and Donovan. Amy Ryan is wasted as Donovan’s wife, whose only significance is to remind her husband of the importance of protecting his family. It’s another recent Spielberg trap: filling his movies with so many characters that the ones who are supposed to be important get lost along the way (War Horse, even Lincoln to an extent). It’s as if the movie meant to be longer despite already being over two hours. There’s a sense that a lot of footage was left on the cutting room floor, scenes that probably would have satisfied that need for a deeper connection with secondary characters.

As a Cold War film, Bridge of Spies delivers a history lesson for those not familiar with the state of the world in that time period and the mindset of people in the U.S. and overseas. Spielberg has proven once more that he can make a good historical film, but that’s all that it really amounts to. The writing and Mark Rylance are the saving graces. Some aspects of the writing bring the novelty that Spielberg’s work needs, but it’s not enough to nullify the redundancy that comes along with the film.

The 53rd New York Film Festival runs September 25 – October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Visit the fest’s official website.

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