Bridge of Spies

Movies, as snooty academics and biased critics like myself can attest, are collaborative. No one person controls the creative direction of an entire film. “But what about the director?” I hear you tap in the comment section. Imagine you are a director of a film, how much work would you have if you had to do everything; control art departments, money, shots, actors, postproduction and publicity. That is why directors delegate to talented people to help them. By doing this each person adds their own flair to the project. Bridge of Spies directed by Steven Spielberg, written by the Coen Brothers and starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance is perhaps a perfect model of a collaborative project

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Rudolf Abel (Rylance) and James B. Donovan (Hanks) in court

The plot of the film is based on the real life events surrounding the 1960 U-2 Incident, in which James B. Donovan (Hanks) negotiates the exchange of pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and deals with the complex politics surround the Soviets, East Germany and the USA.

Spielberg shows why he is one of the biggest film director of the age with

On Direction
Spielberg directing Hanks in Bridge of Spies

this very slick film. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski who has collaborated with Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan and Schindlers List delivers a master class in lighting and framing in the start of the film. The rain sequence is particularly well shot verging on Noir. Similarly Hanks and Rylance tackle a script penned by the Coens and Matt Charman with relish, forming believable and sympathetic characters in the harshest conditions. Hanks is perhaps the stand out role, because he dominates the run time, but this is not a bad thing, as Hanks is charming entertaining and witty. Rylance himself lends a weight to a person who happens to be an enemy spy, rather than just a Soviet spy.

The film is well shot, well edited and well acted, but there is something that is off with what should be a tense cold war thriller. The main problem with the film is tone. It feels like the great talents involved in the project are all pulling in

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their own directions, with the Spielberg patented whimsy, the Coens’ wit, Hanks’ Charm and Rylance’s understatement. The person who over powers the project though is Thomas Newman, the composer. Newman is definitely talented having scored The Shawshank Redemption and Finding Nemo. He is known for his soaring strings and clarinet soloists, he can tug the heartstrings and make a moment magical. He does not fit in a spy film at all. He renders the entire peace uncomfortably optimistic and patriotic, a thing not done during other Cold War films, even during the Cold War itself. The ending of the film, is perhaps the most telling of the film’s faults; there is no tension in it at all. Similarly the cyclical call back to the start robs the film of what should have been an intelligent and critical movie about America’s relationship to the rest of the world. Instead it ends on a note that rings more “America is great, shame about the rest of the world” rather than, “Is America great?”.

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A tensionless climax in Bridge of Spies

A similar criticism must be made of the screen play. What appears evident is that there are many films shoved together in this project, from a Coen spy comedy (which by the way Coens if you are reading this, do that, do it please, cold war Burn After Reading please. Thanks) to a courtroom drama, to a standard spy thriller. Indeed the shift from defending Abel to negotiating change almost seems as if there were two films that were shoved together haphazardly. The same tonal problems persist in the script leaving not enough room for the story that is being told. The end is rushed and not fully explored. Some characters are comic or villainous caricatures and themes of American foreign policy are dropped for a heart-warming fish out water story that is out of place for the period in which it is set.+-

A deeply flawed film then, with too many cooks. However there is enough here to occupy you, mainly due to Hanks’ charismatic performance and the occasional sparks of brilliance from so many other talented people.

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