Bridge of Spies (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Touchstone Pictures, PG-13)

Bridge of_Spies_75Bridge of Spies’ biggest downfall is its characters, but this is a problem in an unusual way.

 

 

 

 

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One of Steven Spielberg’s greatest tricks as a director is that, though about 50% of the films he makes seem in all regards like glaring, obvious, Oscar bait-type films, they rarely ever feel that way while you’re watching them. His newest one of these is Bridge of Spies, which: Is a period piece? Check. Is based on a true story? Check. Stars a much-awarded performer? Check. (In this case, Tom Hanks.) Is being released during awards season? Check. We could go on, but you get the idea.

Hanks plays James Donovan, a Brooklyn-based insurance lawyer who, circa 1957, gets charged with the task of being the criminal defense attorney for one Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, of stuff like Angels & Insects, Intimacy, and Institute Benjamenta; i.e. a great actor, but not the sort you’d expect to turn up in a movie like this), a caught and all but definitely guilty Russian spy. This at the height of the Cold War, mind you, so no one’s very anxious to be dabbling on the side of the Reds.

But since it’s a Tom Hanks character, James Donovan may as well be Atticus Finch, for how willing he is to stand up for those whose rights are being railroaded over. And it’s handy that Donovan, if no one else, is willing to stand up for Abel, as soon after Abel’s trial an American soldier, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), gets shot down taking pictures of Russia using new plane and photography technology, which allows him to do such a thing from heights previously unforeseen.

If you’re like me, one of the main things that will draw you to Bridge of Spies will be the presence of a screenplay co-written by the Coen brothers (here working with Matt Charman); on first glance it seems strange that the Coens wrote a script that Spielberg went on to direct, but then one remembers that they also co-wrote the screenplay to last year’s Unbroken, which, like Bridge of Spies, was a relatively dry awards bait movie, also a period piece, also based on a true story of American resilience. And the comparison to Unbroken, once one makes it, winds up being pretty apt—both Bridge of Spies and Unbroken are pretty solid films, with strong storytelling and no major flaws, but all the same are not particularly interesting nor memorable in any serious way.

Bridge of Spies’ biggest downfall is its characters, but this is a problem in an unusual way—both Donovan and Abel are very rich, interesting, well-drawn characters (and it helps that both are played well, with especially Rylance doing exceptional work), but the entire rest of the very large cast are not all just poorly drawn, but merely caricatures. One wonders how an American citizen of 1957 would have reacted to this film, where the Russian spy is portrayed somewhat sympathetically, but nearly every single American character comes across as little more than shrill and bigoted. And yes, I acknowledge that this may well be an accurate representation of the time—hell, it’s maybe an accurate representation of our own time—but still, the bottom line is that the lack of depth to any but the two main characters hurts the film’s overall effectiveness. | Pete Timmermann

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