Oct 8, 2015
Bridge of Spies
Based on a true story, the latest Steven Spielberg movie starts darkly and nimbly enough as insurance lawyer James Donovan, (Tom Hanks) is asked to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) an artist accused of being a Russian spy. Since this is the cold war, the US government wants to give an appearance of justice and due process in order to teach the tyrannical Soviets a lesson. Behind closed doors, however, everybody thinks this is just putting on a show, and that Donovan will play his role, Abel will be sent to the gallows and America will look good. But it so happens that Donovan is a man of integrity, and, as a lawyer, he is not prepared to lose a case, no matter who he is defending.
Donovan soon finds out that at the apex of cold war paranoia, people, including judges, are willing to throw the Constitution out the window and to convict first and ask questions later, much like what has happened since 9/11 gave the government the pretext to ignore constitutional protections and do terrible things in the name of freedom. So far, so good.
This being Spielberg, every frame is richly composed, the production design by Adam Stockhausen is fantastic, the cinematography by Spielberg's longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminsky is lush and theatrical, and we zip along thinking that this is a great rebuke to laws like the Patriot Act, and aren't we lucky to have directors like Spielberg who want to call attention to the dark side of the American obsession with "freedom".
But then, this being Spielberg, the movie turns into a predictable hero-worship tale in which Donovan fights through thick and thin to save his client and ends up negotiating a spy exchange in East Berlin, which puts him into something out of a spy movie, but without the suspense.
Attempting to get a chocolate chip cookie out of its aluminum foil wrapping without the usher noticing was far more suspenseful that whatever was happening on the screen. People complained that Lincoln was boring. Well, I was riveted by the back and forth of political negotiation in Lincoln (and by the rich and precise language of Tony Kushner's script) and was bored to tears here.
I suspect the reason is that as written and played, the character of Donovan is toothless. Hanks is his usual likable, capable self, but for someone so shrewd, he lacks edge. There is a total absence of sexiness, and I don't just mean the physical kind, but the sexiness of a shrewd mind, of a crack negotiator who enjoys the fun and games. I understand the concept of a reluctant hero, but Donovan is thrown into an adventure by the CIA, and keeps complaining that he wants to go home. No doubt he uses this "aw shucks" strategy to disarm the enemy, but he is terribly uninteresting. This character needs an actor with more guile, someone who doesn't ooze virtue. Nothing is more boring than virtue.
I was not impressed with Mark Rylance either, because his Abel is a caricature and his mousy shtick wears thin. The great Amy Ryan is wasted as Donovan's wife. The movie is very stagey, and it gets hokier by the minute.
A terrific montage of school kids being traumatized by cold war propaganda is better than the entire film. Spielberg orchestrates a couple of visually exciting moments, but his instinct is towards the sappy, and I, for one, am exhausted with the fantasy of American decency. It has long outlasted its welcome. No one believes it anymore. Somebody make it stop.
For a much better hero, I recommend The Measure of A Man, a small, powerful film in which the hero (the great Vincent Lindon) is a guy who loses his job and is willing to do anything to have one, until his conscience says "enough". It takes place mostly in a kind of French WalMart. Director Stephane Brizé wrests nail-biting suspense from a conversation with the guy in the unemployment bureau, from confrontations between security guys in the store and people whom they catch stealing. No Russian spies, no cold war, no swelling string section when the hero stops at nothing to do the heroic thing. Just the relentless fight of every man, every day, for dignity.