The term “old fashioned” is usually associated with certain negative connotations, but believe me when I say that Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is old fashioned in all the right ways. All throughout this Cold War spy drama, I was reminded not of any particular classic Hollywood film, but of the style of the films that were made in this era. Not the films that dealt specifically with important “issues”, but those that couched a sometimes profound, almost always subversive, message in their narratives. These films were more often than not “genre pictures” -western, horror, science fiction- but they always had something to say about America and American culture beyond their narrative thrills. Bridge of Spies, despite not being a “genre picture”, shares in the tradition of those defiant classics.
Despite its title, Bridge of Spies does not fit comfortably into our definition of the “spy movie” genre. If anything, the film would be best described as a legal drama, which is part of the reason why the movie couldn’t be called a “genre picture”. Legal dramas are simply too prestigious. And even then, it’s hard to classify the movie under one single genre at all. The first half of the movie focuses on what happens after the capture of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), most specifically the trial during which all-American insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) acts as the Soviet’s attorney. In the second, the film shifts gears into a tense negotiation in which Donovan must travel to Berlin and strike a deal to exchange captured spies with the Soviet government.
One thing’s for sure, though. Like the film’s I alluded to before, Bridge of Spies is one hell of a handsomely made movie. Even though I would contest that Spielberg has not directed a masterpiece since Munich, his filmmaking talent has not diminished a bit in the past decade. Unlike other directors who age out into irrelevance, Spielberg’s seems to have found comfort in the fact that he is one of the most *powerful* filmmakers alive. He has evolved from a cinematic virtuoso into an old master of the form. Experience has given him the confidence to be patient. Bridge of Spies takes as much time as it needs to go from scene to scene, and it knows that we will follow it into any kind of narrative digression and trust that the seemingly unconnected scene will mean something to the movie in terms of plot, character, of theme.
We spend an uncommon amount of time with characters other than our hero, and while we don’t really need to see these scenes to follow the movie’s narrative, they end up being some of the movie’s strongest sequences. One of them follows a cycling student in East Berlin, the other is the movie’s opening, which focuses on the daily routine of Soviet spy Abel before he gets captured. Abel -played magnificently by theatre veteran Rylance- end up becoming the emotional center of the film. His old-man demeanor and dry sense of humor is not an act, this communist spy is presented as a character with as much honor and conviction as the American protagonist. A characterization that would have been shocking in any mainstream film made before the fall of the communist block.
This brings me back to my original point about Bridge of Spies. A superficial reading of the film, and it would be tempting and understandable to make such a reading considering the sheer technical quality of the filmmaking, will present a classic tale about a moral citizen fighting hard for American ideals. Hanks’s Donovan echoes the quintessential political hero portrayed by Jimmy Stewart when Mr. Smith went to Washington. This is one of Hanks’s most charismatic performances, and probably the epitome for an actor who has made a career off of playing all kinds of “everymen.” But accepting this as a tale of great idealism would be meeting the movie only halfway through.
The natural question is: Why would Spielberg decide to tell this story now? The film is based on true events, and has been in development in way or another for years, but why now? The easiest connection to make is the treatment of Edward Snowden after his infamous information leak. Not a far-fetched connection when we’re talking about a movie that spends most of its first act exploring the idea that the “enemy” spy deserves proper representation and a fair trial. Restricting the thematic undertones to Snowden might actually be too much. Spielberg has a number of things to say about intelligence and information. Hanks’s character, for example, is continually kept on the dark during his Berlin mission, and despite the third act’s triumphant air, every victory comes with a darker, more melancholy, side to it.
If there is a weak link to this movie, it is probably its ending, which -not unlike many of Spielberg’s movies- indulges in sentimentality that threatens to drown out the more subtle nuances of the story. I think it would be improper of me to write about the end in detail when most people haven’t seen this movie yet, but I will say that some of the most fascinating and revealing moments in the movie have to do with the relationship between the captured spies and their respective governments. Each government wants to get back their people, but the swelling strings of Thomas Newman’s score don’t correlate with the treatment of the people welcoming them back home.
Spielberg’s directorial hand is so assured during most of the movie that it becomes puzzling that he decided to go so straight-forward and sentimental in the final moments, especially in his use of title cards at the very end of the movie. Still, there is so much more to this movie than just the ending, and even within its sentimental culmination, there are ambiguities and melancholies to be found. There might be nothing more cliched than harping on the end of a Spielberg movie, so I shall abstain. Instead, I will recommend Bridge of Spies for its thrills, its thoughts, and even its flaws.
Grade: 8 out of 10