Movie Review: ‘Bridge of Spies’ A Character-Driven Chess Game With A Ever-Present Urgency

Published Monday, November 2, 2015 at 12:45 pm

bridgeBy Bob Garver

Steven Spielberg makes two types of movies: movies that are designed to make a lot of money and movies that are designed to win a lot of awards. “Bridge of Spies” falls into the latter category. The film is loaded with scenes of meticulously-dressed characters moving about meticulously-dressed sets, doing and saying noble things while important-sounding music by Thomas Newman swells. It’s clearly Oscar bait, and this may alienate some viewers who write these kinds of films off as manipulative and formulaic. I can’t deny that there’s a certain amount of pandering going on, but there’s no point in getting mad at Spielberg for using a winning formula if the formula is earning him yet another win.

Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an American attorney brought on to defend “suspected” Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in 1957 in the early stages of the Cold War. Donovan is reluctant to take on the controversial client, but is encouraged to do so by his boss (Alan Alda) because America needs to prove that it gives everyone a fair trial. In other words, America is supposed to appear morally superior to its enemies, even though Abel’s guilt has already unofficially been determined. Donovan takes the case and discovers that no search warrant was ever issued for Abel’s apartment, meaning that he should not be convicted. Abel is convicted anyway and Donovan looks bad for poking holes in the case against an enemy of his country. He wasn’t supposed to actually make sense in the case for Abel. Even his boss, who told him to take the case in the first place, shuns him for defending Abel with passion.

Donovan’s career looks like it’s in ruins, but then another Abel-related opportunity presents itself. An American pilot (Austin Stowell) has been captured by the Soviets. America wants him back and is willing to trade Abel to get him. Because of his rapport with Abel, Donovan is chosen to go to Berlin and negotiate the terms of the trade. It’s an unenviable task because conditions in Berlin are miserable, from the weather to the amenities to the roving street gangs to the fact that Americans are hated there. In fact, an American student (Will Rogers) has been taken prisoner for basically no reason, and ends up being a factor in the trade. Donovan once again refuses to go through the motions, and negotiates ferociously for the release of both prisoners, even though he has only one prisoner to offer in return.

The film does almost everything right. It’s tense in the right parts, touching in the right parts, and funny in the right parts, though the funny parts are understandably sparse. One decision I wish it didn’t make is that it portrays Abel as an unmistakable spy. There’s an early scene where he goes to retrieve secret information that he later destroys and nobody knows about. It’s certainly a well-shot sequence and gets the film off to a great start, but I don’t think the movie needs to show him as a spy. Donovan doesn’t know for certain that his client is a spy, why should we?

Like Donovan, “Bridge of Spies” could have gone through the motions and done an okay job. It could have loaded itself with the charming elements I mentioned earlier, called it a day, and been perfectly passable. But the film strives to be even more, a character-driven chess game with a rarely-seen, yet ever-present urgency that the characters dare not show lest they seem desperate in the eyes of their enemies. Yes, it’s Oscar bait, but it’s so well-made that there’s no shame in including it in the Oscar discussion.

Three Stars out of Five.

“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language. Its running time is 141 minutes.

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