What’s new this weekend? Well, Jem and the Holograms turned out to be be predictably awful, ditto for The Last Witch Hunter. There’s a new Paranormal Activity movie, like anyone fucking cares at this point, and Rock the Kasbah somehow got a Tomatometer in the single digits. Such a relief that I can keep on trudging through the massive backlog I’ve already got.
Let’s move onto Bridge of Spies, an awards contender with a fantastic pedigree and a sterling critical reception. I went into this one with high expectations, and I’m thrilled to say that it didn’t disappoint.
This is the true story of James B. Donovan, here immortalized by Tom Hanks. Formerly a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials, we meet Donovan in 1957 (at the height of the Cold War, as the opening title card helpfully reminds us) when he works as an insurance lawyer. A partner at his law firm, no less.
But then Donovan gets called in to serve as the defense lawyer for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is accused of being a Soviet spy. Which means that Donovan has to stand up in court and make the case for why an alleged traitor to the United States shouldn’t be sent to the electric chair. And the crazy thing is, Donovan might actually have a case for getting his client off entirely: a lot of the evidence was conducted without a warrant, in flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment. Of course, there’s the question of whether constitutional rights apply to people here in America who may not even be U.S. citizens, but Donovan seems to think that it does and he cites some case law to back it up.
However, the fact remains that Donovan is acting as the legal counsel for an alleged Soviet spy. Even if Abel hasn’t been convicted yet, the court of public opinion has already spoken. The greatest bogeyman of the American people has been given a face and a name, and they want Abel dead. There’s also the CIA, who’s pressuring Donovan to break client confidentiality and tell Uncle Sam what Abel knows. So really, Donovan has enemies at every level of American society.
It’s a crappy, thankless, dangerous job. And Donovan is going to do it. Not because he’s a communist — far from it — but precisely because he’s a patriot.
Donovan (and by extention, the movie) makes the deeply impassioned argument that we have to keep hold of the Constitution. That includes the notions that everyone is entitled to a fair trial and we are all innocent until proven guilty. It’s our rules, our laws, and our values that define our nation. We can’t protect our country by betraying those values; otherwise, what are we protecting our country for?
Things get further complicated when Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) gets shot down over Soviet airspace while flying a brand new, top-of-the-line, super-secret spy plane. The CIA gets wind of this, and they want to facilitate a prisoner exchange: Powers for Abel. Naturally, Donovan is selected to facilitate the exchange, except that it’s a classified mission. Even better, the meeting is set at East Berlin, while the cement of the Berlin Wall is still wet.
So basically, Donovan is going to this exchange as a private citizen. He has no formal authority under the U.S. government, he has nothing to defend himself with, and he has no military backup whatsoever. And he’s stepping into a territory annexed by the Soviets, at a time when everything is in ruins and the rule of law is close to non-existent. He’s surrounded by brigands, gangs, and thieves, all of whom want a taste of whatever wealth the American has. And of course, the police operate without any kind of government oversight, and they’re all eager to shoot suspected capitalist spies, anyone trying to cross the Berlin Wall, or anyone they just plain don’t like.
Sound bad enough? Well, it’s about to get worse.
While Donovan was en route to East Berlin, some American college student (Frederic Pryor, here played by Will Rogers) had the misfortune of getting caught crossing the Wall. So now he’s been captured by the East Berlin police, which bureaucracy insists is completely different from the Soviet authorities. And now, because East Berlin has their own American hostage, the German Democratic Republic wants to trade Abel for Pryor. That way, they get some international credibility for dealing with one global superpower (the U.S.A.) and they get a bargaining chip to use with another global superpower (the U.S.S.R.).
To the CIA, all of this is irrelevant. They want to trade Abel for Powers because those two are international spies in possession of very crucial information. Who cares about one stupid kid with absolutely no involvement in the Cold War whatsoever? Donovan, that’s who.
Donovan spends the entire back half of the movie flagrantly violating the orders of the CIA to try and get Pryor, Powers, and Abel all back home. He wants to coordinate three completely different international agendas to facilitate a two-for-one exchange, doing so in a way that doesn’t start World War III and doesn’t end with Donovan getting arrested or shot.
In this case, the basic theme is that every life matters. Whether it’s Pryor being ordered to rot in an Eastern European hellhole or Powers being ordered to kill himself rather than risk being captured, both are considered expendable for the sake of a greater good. But going back to the first half of the film, what are these young men dying for overseas if our laws and freedoms are disregarded back home anyway? What’s the use of having individual freedoms when we as individuals are considered disposable? Why worry about the Soviets ruining our way of life when our own government is already doing that?
Furthermore, where do we draw the line? Who’s to say that one life is worth more than another? How many lives have to be sacrificed before the ends stop justifying the means?
All of these are extremely complex philosophical questions with a wide spectrum of legitimate answers. And this movie encourages a long, hard discussion about all of them, which would be accomplishment enough. Granted, the movie does come down very hard on the side of individual freedoms over collective security, but the film gets away with it because the story is so beautifully told and the arguments are expressed in such a compelling manner.
First of all, I imagine that a perk of being a legend like Spielberg is that there’s no such thing as a “dream cast.” Who’s going to say no to Spielberg? Where’s the actor who would pass up the chance to work with him? Where’s the studio executive who’d say that Spielberg doesn’t know what he’s doing or that some other choice would make for a better film? No, I’m quite sure that anyone Spielberg wants to be in his movie, he will get to be in his movie.
A benefit of this is that every single actor in this film is perfectly chosen. The cast is positively flooded with such proven and exceptional character actors as Jesse Plemons, Mark Rylance, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, and Peter McRobbie, among many others. You probably don’t recognize very many of those names, but that’s not important. What’s important is that every single one of them, without exception, knocks their roles out of the park. I think the biggest names in all the supporting cast would be Amy Ryan and Alan Alda, both of whom get relatively minor roles that are nonetheless played beautifully.
But of course, this is Tom Hanks’ show. And I don’t even think I need to say how good he is. Granted, he plays the character as an ordinary guy who’s in over his head, with nothing but innate charm and intelligence to get his way. The role fits perfectly into Hanks’ established wheelhouse, but there’s nobody else who does it better and it’s exactly what the role needed.
Speaking of which, a lot of the great character work stems from the fact that the Coen Brothers co-wrote this script. If there’s anyone who knows how to write memorable characters with whip-smart dialogue, it’s these guys. The Coens also have a famous knack for comic relief, which comes in very handy with this picture.
Then of course we have the man himself. Spielberg proves yet again precisely why he’s gained such a reputation as a legendary director. With assistance from recurring collaborators Janusz Kaminski and Michael Kahn, Spielberg crafted a gorgeous movie positively brimming with tension. To say nothing about the breathtaking sequence in which the U2 spy plane gets shot down. And even though it’s Thomas Newman composing the score, he’s still a tremendously accomplished composer whose music in this film is more than worthy of grandmaster Williams.
If there’s one real nitpick I have with this picture, it’s in how the plot feels like two films mashed into one. There’s a very clear division between Abel’s trial and the prisoner exchange negotiations, and going from one to the other is a touch jarring. I know this was unavoidable and the film does take measures to try and ease the transition, but it does screw up the pacing to a mild degree nonetheless.
Put simply, Bridge of Spies is a showcase of top-notch talents doing what they do best. You’ve got Steven Spielberg, the Coen Brothers, Tom Hanks, and an army of exceedingly gifted performers on both sides of the camera, all at the pinnacle of their game.
But what separates this movie from more hollow awards-bait dramas is that this one feels like it has a purpose. I was successfully tricked into thinking that I was watching actual people on the screen instead of actors reading lines. I felt like this was a story that needed to be told, with relevant and timely messages presented in compelling ways. It’s obvious that so much passion and effort went into this movie, even though most of the filmmakers involved are more than accomplished enough already that they could have easily rested on their laurels.
There isn’t a doubt in my mind that whatever Best Picture material is, this movie has it. Highly recommended.