Bridge of Spies (2015)
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Writer: Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
by Jon Cvack
This was on my list of Do Not Watch trailer or read anything about. I knew it involved spies and the cold war, and I knew Tom Hanks was recruited for some type of spy mission because I caught the trailer during another film, closed my eyes, but heard about the recruitment. This Hank’s his best film since Catch Me if You Can, possibly since Saving Private Ryan. And wow what a gorgeous film it is, looking as though straight from the Golden 1970s.
The film is based on the true story of James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer at a prestigious New York insurance firm, who’s recruited to defend a recently captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Of course, he catches a lot of heat as he battles the US Government who wishes to follow formal due process, without sacrificing any information. Not knowing anything about the film, I figured this was going to be a courtroom drama by the likes of Anatomy of a Murder or Judgement at Nuremburg (‘61). Except it then takes a turn when the CIA recruits an Air Force team to capture spy photographs of East Berlin from a brand new, top secret jet/photographic system they designed. That individual then gets shot down, and sure enough, the government brings in James B. Donovan to arrange for his exchange with Abel.
This is probably the best shot of Spielberg’s films, somehow transporting us to the late 1950s with flawless and awe inspiring set design. Spielberg returns to his untouchable cinematic voice - showing rather than telling and with incredible creativity. The grainy look makes it feel like the type of film Spielberg would have made if he had all the power players of the 1970s, in which you could see Pacino, DeNiro, Redford, Hoffman, or Hackman taking on Hank’s role.
Similar to PTA for the Mall Photography scene from The Master, it looked as though Spielberg searched for individuals who had a face particular to the period and thus we have one of those rare films where the vision trumped the money. It could have been easy and more marketable to fill the cast with familiar faces. Instead, we feel like we’re watching a film shot in 1957.
Lately, I’ve grown nostalgic for the older films of Spielberg, Altman, or Scorsese; filmmakers who are masters of showing and communicating information in beautiful and imaginative ways. I’m not talking about the dialogue or the cinematography, but rather all of the elements of filmmaking adding up and managed with the very finest level of quality. Take, for instance, the gunshots that attack the house. We open with a shot of the daughter watching television and we’re enamored with how beautiful it is, looking like a 1950s technicolor film, and then the bullets come in and we’re drawn out of the beauty. There were moments where I got physically colder, as we're shown that brutal Berlin weather and a common cold starts getting passed around between the men. Bridge of Spies makes us both nostalgic for the period, while making us aware that perhaps we haven’t progressed all that much in how the law is applied to foreigners.
At its simplest - does the due process apply to everyone who’s within our borders, or just those who were born here? We appreciate Donovan’s determination to respect a foreign soldier’s honor and his right to the rule of law. For anyone that believes otherwise, this film will make you think. Soldiers - foreign or domestic - attempt to serve their country with honor, and we should respect them for doing so, as we would expect the same from our citizens, and would resent a country that execute them should they have been caught. What is the resolve otherwise? Our guy gets killed, which makes us want to avenge them and kill one of theirs, or vice versa. With the perfectly balanced, Spielbergian touch we find honor in those we initially resent. Abel is simply a man who felt a duty. Of course, we can extend this logic a few years prior during the Nuremburg Trials - in which we examined whether ‘just following orders’ is an adequate defense. At the height of the Cold War, when everyone is waiting for the slightest trigger, we see that diplomacy is often the best answer.
I loved Munich ('05) when I first saw it, but after reviewing it a couple times after it just lost me. It often went too far and the brutal reality couldn’t accommodate the sentimental touch. Bride of Spies is up there with Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List - approaching the material with a maturity that makes it accessible. Sure, I suppose it’s a little too polished at the end, but I think that’s what matters most. On the train in Berlin, Donovan watched East Berlin citizens trying to escape, to be shot down and killed. In the closing sequence, Donovan, back in America, sees kids hopping fences in America with no worries of murder. It’s clear that Spielberg wants us to remember what makes us great. Not just the decisions of one man, but of an entire era that worked toward maintaining a balance, rather than immediately going to violence. It's one of the best films of recent years.
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