In style, storytelling, and straight-up patriotism, Steven Spielberg is nearing Capra-esque levels with his latest film, ‘Bridge of Spies.’ The story of a lawyer who stands by his principles–no matter the situation or the consequences–is something that could be right out of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Meet John Doe. After seeing this movie, I’m not even sure if I mean that as a compliment or not. Undoubtedly, Capra’s movies are unassailable classics. Yet, when Spielberg uses the same patriotic brush to paint his own Norman Rockwell, it seems to fall a little flat.
The story itself is a truly incredible one. It concerns lawyer James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) who, after years of working in the insurance industry, is tasked with representing accused Soviet spy Rudolph Abel. Much to the dismay of his friends, coworkers, and family, Donovan actually gives Abel (an understandably unpopular guy in the Cold War era 50’s) an extremely credible defense, saving him from receiving the death penalty. Keeping Abel alive turns out to be a stroke of luck when, in 1962, the Soviets capture Francis Gary Powers who was shot down flying a U-2 spy plane over the USSR.
The movie then proceeds to cover the negotiations between Donovan, the Soviets, and the East German government (who are holding another American) in Berlin. Without giving anything away, the negotiations prove fraught with difficulties and there are many different parties working in tandem against one another. It’s a taught, suspense filled thriller and, assuming you don’t know the story going in, there are twists and turns that catch the viewer completely unsuspecting.
There are elements in this movie that are very enjoyable. Spielberg is an old pro behind the camera and his cinematography has never looked better. Shooting in Brooklyn and Berlin really lend an air of reality to the look of the film that I’m not sure would be attainable on a sound stage in L.A. The acting, too, is very good, especially the interplay between Hanks and Mark Rylance, who plays Abel. The story is well-plotted, and the main characters and era feel very well fleshed out. Though the Coen Brothers are credited as co-writers, it did not feel decidedly like a Coen Brothers movie, who can say for better or for worse?
Where the movie falls short is in its heavy handedness, its lack of stakes, and its timing. There’s a scene early on, when Abel’s trial is beginning that perfectly illustrates the first fault. Donovan has just been in the judge’s chambers attempting to have illicit evidence thrown out, a request that is roundly rejected. When the characters return to the court room, it leads to the jury rendering a guilty verdict for Abel which is shot in a way to make you feel sorry for the man. He may have been a spy, but he was just doing his job as a solider, something we’d expect of our spies. As soon as the verdict comes down, Spielberg cuts directly to a classroom full of children, hands over heart, pledging allegiance to our flag. Once through the allegiance, it cuts directly to shots of atom bombs exploding (Burt the Turtle cartoons which, if you haven’t seen one, do yourself a favor) and the kids silently weeping as they see mounds of earth torn through with fire. It feels like heavy-handed, atomic era chastising and seemed to illicit quite a bit of eye rolling.
Another slight downside was the feeling in the film that nothing could go wrong for the main characters. Again, without getting into too much detail, Donovan and other characters often found themselves in dangerous and harrowing situations. Yet, there never seemed to be any doubt that each one of them would escape from them without harm. What should have been life or death situations felt more like bungee jumping; sure it’s risky and all, but at the end of the day you’re 99% certain you’re going to get back on that bridge. Maybe this was just because the film didn’t focus on many minor characters, but the stakes didn’t feel as high as they were stated to be.
Most of all, this kind of movie just doesn’t have the same resonance today. A movie about inviolable American values doesn’t ring especially true in an era where every day people are being murdered en masse, where veiled xenophobia appears everywhere, and where our government seemingly records our every e-mail, text message, and phone call in the name of “security.” There are scenes in ‘Bridge of Spies’ that show the methods that the Soviets try to use to get Powers to tell them details of the plane he flew. They deprive him of sleep, put him under lights to where he can’t discern his surroundings, pour bucket after bucket of water in his face; “techniques” not unlike those the CIA used in the wars following 9/11. They seem purposefully similar and maybe that’s the point.
Maybe what Spielberg is trying to show is how different our values these days are from what we consider our ‘golden age,’ and how similar they can seem (at our worst) to those of our Cold War adversaries. A person like the James Donovan shown in the movie doesn’t seem realistic in an age that feels very much like one lacking in true altruism. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, especially if someone believes in the power and the influence of Hollywood, as I can only assume Spielberg does.
In a Q&A with Spielberg and Hanks after the film–much of which was superfluous–someone asked Hanks what it was like playing heroes all the time. Hanks answered that he didn’t believe that Donovan was a hero, because he didn’t have to try to do the right thing and because he never put his sense of self at risk to accomplish his ends. There wasn’t any risk to his character because Donovan had a rigid set of morals, and a static, unwavering character; like a figure in a painting. No matter the situation, he wasn’t going to allow the forces swirling around to change him. This is what makes ‘Bridge of Spies’ feel like a Rockwell painting. We might need men of immovable temperament in today’s world, but are we sure that any even exist off of the canvas?