Don’t be fooled by Bridge of Spies’ marketing, emblazoned with Tom Hanks’ name and face. It’s not his upstanding lawyer who is the real hero of this Cold War drama, but American Idealism itself. And with an idea as its protagonist, there’s not much room for character development, but plenty of ponderous monologues about the American Way.
To Hanks’s credit, it’s he who is most likely to earn Oscar attention for this many-faceted docudrama. As James Donovan, Hanks uses his well-earned affability to assure Donovan’s brand of American Ideology is the most righteous, the most just, the most AMERICA. Then Hanks swings his middle aged paunch and wags his winsome wrinkles to communicate the incredible wrongness of all other figures of American authority that surround him. These fools are blinded by nationalism and American Exceptionalism, and so are as much his adversaries as the sly East Germans and sneaky Soviets with whom Donovan negotiates a prisoner exchange, trading one convicted Russian spy for a CIA agent and an American student who drew the wrong kind of attention in East Berlin.
Hanks is charming whether he’s cajoling or condemning. And Donovon’s high-minded quest for justice is admirable. Yet Bridge of Spies is boring. At nearly two and a half hours, Bridge of Spies delivers two plot lines too many. One is about a family man/determined lawyer who’s given the “thankless task” of defending an alleged Soviet spy in the American court. Initially reluctant, Donovan not only works devotedly for his hated client but also befriends the funny little man (Mark Rylance) who loves to paint when he’s not trying to topple the American government.
Another thread follows Francis Powers (Austin Stowell), a rookie CIA agent/pilot who disappoints his country by surviving an air assault on his plane, parachuting into Russian territory where he’s possibly giving up our sweet sweet secrets! A partial plot is thrown in about aforementioned economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), captured while trying to sneak his German girlfriend to West Berlin. And the last bit of movie is a sequel to the first, bringing Donovan and his Soviet spy Rudolf Abel back together for a climactic prisoner exchange on the titular bridge.
The lawyer-drama movie Bridge of Spies offers is one I was enjoying. Hanks reads instantly as noble, so Donovan’s desire to play by the rules while no one else will has a solid dramatic weight. And this is enriched by Spielberg’s humane sense of humor. Folding in Donovan’s loving and lively family gives room for warmth. Their quiet home life being shattered by bullets crashing through their front windows grounds the dangers defending this reviled man holds for the Donovan clan. Nonetheless, Donovan’s wife (an underused Amy Ryan) and kids are abandoned to make room for warring plot lines.
When Spielberg starts plugging in the soldier stuff, it is so disconnected from what he’s established the viewing experience feels like channel surfing. As things progress, Hanks leans heavy on dialogue explaining why the American captives are worth audience empathy. But Powers and Pryor have so little to do they may well be under-fives, meaning a minor player who has less than five lines of dialogue. Their characters feel more symbol than human, slaughtering the stakes and thereby killing the climax’s dramatic tension.
Though bloated, Bridge of Spies is beautifully shot, staging what could have been static scenes from eye-catching angles, and filling even the grimmest environment with streaks of alluring color. But Spielberg has failed to thread a similar sense of connective color through his unwieldy narrative. Despite dipping its toe into spy and war stories, the movie’s action mostly involves men pacing back-and-forth in tiny hotel rooms and wiping their noses, runny from East Berlin’s biting cold. It’s a meandering slog filled with old white men in suits arguing at length in various high-ceilinged rooms. Ultimately, not even all the charms of Hanks can save this film from Spielberg’s indulgences.
Kristy Puchko thinks her dad would dig this movie.