Monday, October 19, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Photo: Movie's poster, from its Wikipedia page.

First, before you read this review, go to YouTube and see Hanks and Jimmy Fallon acting out some short scripts made for them by kids, and about what kids know about spies.  The last script, about binoculars and friends, is a classic, and the kid who wrote it should get a prize.  Let the record show that the end of the movie is indeed about friendship.  And lots of the spies use binoculars on that bridge, too.

Okay, now...

Bridge of Spies is a film that is hard to rate and critique, since I can't say anything bad about the main actors or the directing (Spielberg hasn't been very bad since...Hook, maybe), cinematography (Janucz Kaminski is always very good), writing (the Coen Brothers!), or anything else.  It's all very good.

Yet I can't also recommend it with excitement, as I did with Sicario.  It's a Spielberg film, so you have to see it, and it's written (actually, re-written) by the Coen Brothers, so that's really good, and Tom Hanks is in it, and he and Spielberg haven't made a bad film together (though The Terminal took a little patience)--and yet, I found myself shrugging my shoulders on the way out, though not in a totally negative way, and I can't really explain it any better than that, though I'll try.

The acting is very good.  Mark Ryman probably performs the best, as the Russian spy.  He'll make you want to re-think your unnecessary worrying, at the very least.  (I'd say "Would it help?" to most people, about most things, but I'd get hit.)  Tom Hanks is typically outstanding in a role he's done many times now, and could perform in his sleep.  He doesn't here, but he could have and little would've been lost.  This is a step-by-step sort of movie.

And maybe that's part of the problem, though you know Spielberg will work with Hanks, and it is good casting here.  But there's no doubt that his character will get what he wants.  It's not set up as a mystery, exactly, nor is it exactly a thriller (another problem, maybe), and his character is so straight-up, so verbally astute, so good at selling, that you know he'll get his way.  The men he talks to are not idiots, either, but their hands are tied by bureaucratic nonsense, and politics, and Hanks' character has so much common sense and good ole American forthrightness that you know it'll all work out.

You can't have a thriller if the ending is never in doubt.  Also, if you remember your high school or college history classes at all (I can't remember where I learned about Gary Powers), you know he will be traded for the KGB guy.  Whether the college kid will also be dealt is the movie's greatest "mystery," but it's never in doubt, for the reasons I gave above.  I didn't remember him from wherever I learned about Gary Powers (as I remember that the U.S. thought he'd divulged everything, and that he was roundly frowned upon, but still wanted back, since he was an All-American Boy), but you know he's coming back or the Hanks character would have nothing to be smartly smug about.

Hanks's character is smartly smug, all movie long.  Normally, this would grate, but one of Hanks's abilities is to pull this off time and again, and not annoy.  It doesn't annoy here, and even seems appropriate to the film.  Believe me, if it didn't annoy me, it won't annoy you.  Those who know me will attest to this.

The movie ends with the note that Hanks's character was sent to Cuba by Kennedy to negotiate the release of 1,000 or so people, and that he walked out of Cuba with several times that many. That may have made a better movie, since nobody besides screenwriters of historical movies and History majors know anything about that, and I wonder (a little cynically) why that wasn't made instead.

The message is also very good, and maybe should have been highlighted more.  As Hanks's character says to Powers at the end, we--and only we--know what we do and why we do it.  Only we are in our own heads.  That's what makes good character, I guess, or a real man, or something along those lines.  (Though I know some real A-holes, as I bet you do, and these A-holes somehow manage to get along with themselves just fine, and undoubtedly sleep much better at night than I do.)

At any rate, that's the reason the KGB guy comes across so well.  He's just doing his job, after all, and he's doing it--patriotically--for his country.  He's fully aware of what may happen to him when he returns (though, according to the print at the end, it doesn't, and all was well), and just doing their job for their country is probably what some SS guys said at Nuremberg, but whatever...The point of most Spielberg-Hanks movies lately is that this is the way an upright man will behave, and in essence that's what we have here.

Maybe my biggest caveat here is that I felt like I shouldn't like or appreciate this movie, but I do, and I suspect you will too.  I also say this because I know it's gotten a 90% approval rating, and universal acclaim, as it should.  It's very solid, if not spectacular--and maybe that's yet another misgiving. From Spielberg, we expect spectacular.  I've been waiting for another Munich, another Saving Private Ryan, another Schindler's List, for a long time now. But he seems to be in another phase--let's call this the Moral American / U.S. History phase--and he seems to want subtlety, and behind-the-scenes manners that result in dramatic and important history.  This is what Lincoln and Bridge of Spies have in common.  Neither is a bad film, though Lincoln had Daniel Day-Lewis to hang its hat on, and Bridge of Spies doesn't.  That's not a slam against Hanks.  The movie simply isn't a tour de force, with that kind of central character and a performance necessary to carry it.

Anyway, you should see this, especially if you feel, like I do, that one really ought to see every Spielberg film, if you like movies at all.  But if there's a lot that you want to see out there right now (as there is for me, with The Martian and Crimson Peak still in the wings), and if you can't see them all, then wait to rent this one, or see it on cable.  But it is worth seeing, so don't miss it.  You probably won't want to see it again, though.  (I own every Spielberg movie, so I'll get this one, too, but I doubt I'd re-watch it.)

A very strange review, I know, but my reaction to it was a bit different than usual.  Still, see it.

P.S.--It seemed for awhile that this movie would be about how all Americans, or anyone embroiled in our justice system, deserve a fair trial, which the KGB guy certainly never gets, as the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling (against him) suggests.  It reminded me for a moment of Kevin Costner in JFK, where he tells his wife and crying kids that he's simply fighting for What's Right, or for Truth, more than anything else.  A very good film can still be made of this, with maybe this part of Bridge of Spies as its starting-off point.


  1. Good review. I agree for the most part, except I don't know if I can recommend anyone see this in theater. It can wait for Netflix or cable. It just seemed like every other movie Tom Hanks has been in lately. I couldn't help but think of his character in "Catch Me If You Can" right down to the hat and suit. To me that was a much more entertaining film, though!

    We knew the outcome in Argo too, but it was still a very intense movie. That's the different between an exciting film and a rather dull one. Just my two cents!

    1. I agree with you, Diane, except that Catch Me If You Can was too slight a movie for me--which I know sounds elitist, but there it is. That's my biggest complaint about this movie: Too slight. Not irrelevant, exactly, but it could have--and maybe should have--been made more intensely to highlight its relevance. Maybe build on either captive's life being in danger. Or that they may be considered traitors by their own gov't, if that gov't thinks they've divulged their secrets--which both spies said they didn't do. Focusing on Hanks's character took all the drama and tension out of it.