Movie Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Posted: March 6, 2016 in Drama
Tags: , ,

ST. JAMES PLACE

 

In 1957, Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is caught by the F.B.I.  Constitutionally, the U.S. had to provide Abel with legal counsel.  The New York Bar decides on insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to represent Abel.  At trial, Donovan finds out that the F.B.I. didn’t have a search warrant.  Nonetheless, Abel is found guilty.  Donovan plans to appeal the verdict, but his legal associate, Thomas Watters Jr. (Alan Alda) and Donovan’s wife, Mary (Amy Ryan) want Donovan to drop the appeal, however, Donovan presses on, and loses his appeal in the Supreme Court 5-4.  Donovan was successful in getting jail time for Abel instead of the death penalty, because he felt that Abel could be used in case there was an American taken by the Soviets.

In 1960, U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) was shot down over Soviet territory, and jailed by the Soviet Union.  Negotiations involving Donovan and the Soviets began almost immediately for a prisoner swap, Abel for Powers.  Complicating matters during Donovan’s negotiations for Powers’ release, an American student named Fredric Pryor (Will Rogers)  is detained in East Germany.  Donovan insists that Pryor be released along with Powers for Abel.  Does Donovan get both Powers and Pryor released or does he have to settle for a one for one prisoner swap?

There is a problem with Bridge of Spies, and that is that despite staying close to the actual facts of the true story, it loses any excitement of a spy swap in the minutiae of the details of the case against Abel.  Later in the story, the Pryor subplot is thrown in as almost an afterthought, why should the viewer care about a student in East Germany, except that student is a pivotal part of the film.  It may be difficult to contemporaneously tell three stories at once, but Stephen Spielberg is a legendary director and I expected more from him.  The story was written by Ethan Coen and I expected better storytelling ability from him.  The ending also implies a mutual respect between American lawyer and Russian client that may not have existed.

Tom Hanks plays what he always plays, good guy, this time going against the conventional wisdom, but he does so in such an emotionless, technocratic way that it’s difficult to care about the character.  The movie takes great pains to point out that Abel is from England, which explains Mark Rylance’s almost Scottish lilt, but did Rylance deserve the Oscar?  I would have to say no, he was absent for large swaths of this movie, and his performance was so understated, that he was speaking in almost a whisper, there was hardly anything notable about it.

This seemed like a vanity piece for Spielberg, it’s an important topic, a valuable piece of historical drama, but I think Spielberg mishandled it badly, the pacing was impossibly slow and tedious in it ponderous telling.  There was some hand-held camera footage too, that trend is getting old fast. It was a long story that was in dire need of some editing. Spielberg did not get especially good performances from Hanks or Ryland, and everyone else including Alan Alda had bit parts.

Bridge of Spies:  A Bridge Too Far

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