Film Review: ‘Bridge of Spies’

New York Film Festival main slate
Courtesy of DreamWork Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures

Steven Spielberg's 1950s espionage drama gives Tom Hanks another meaty role to add to his resume, though it's Mark Rylance who steals the show as the Soviet spy sent back out into the cold.

It’s no small feat turning a shyster and an enemy spy into national heroes, but that’s the unique achievement of Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” If Jimmy Stewart were alive today, the director surely would have asked him to play James Donovan, a noble New York insurance lawyer roped into providing an alleged Soviet agent with pro-bono legal representation, who later goes on to broker his exchange for two Americans held captive by Commies. Failing that, he’d done one better and cast honorary Boy Scout and all-around good guy Tom Hanks in the role, transforming a potential indictment of patriotic hypocrisy and Cold War subterfuge into a riveting, feel-good time for the whole family (two instances of the “F-word” notwithstanding), putting it on track to top “War Horse.”

Spielberg may as well have gone full “R” with this deliciously shady spy-swap plot, as the richly re-created period drama — which benefits from a crackling Coen brothers script polish — boasts more courtroom time than it does actual cloak-and-dagger intrigue (in one scene, Hanks’ runny-nose hero literally has his cloak stolen off his back by East German street thugs). While the helmer’s mythmaking approach makes for great Capra-esque entertainment, younger audiences may find it terribly old-fashioned — and they’d be right to think so, although Spielberg would be the first to admit it was his intention to play things classical, resolutely shooting on celluloid, while blending aspects of a tony legal thriller with a hat-tip tribute to the rich, expressionistic look of 1940s film noir.

In Donovan, Hanks finds one of the chewiest late-career roles he could possibly hope for, playing the New York attorney with fists balled and belly slightly paunched, simultaneously non-threatening and ready for a fight. Called into the office of his good-old-boy boss (Alan Alda), he has no choice to take a case that he recognizes will surely make him unpopular, defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, a remarkable theater actor with a relatively short screen CV), whom the FBI have arrested and charged as a Russian spy.

Set in 1957, “Bridge of Spies” evokes the era as one of mounting thermonuclear hysteria and alarming groupthink, in which a lawyer who advocates for a Soviet agent can be seen as a traitor to his own country (potentially worse than Abel, who wasn’t American to begin with). “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose,” he jokes, though even his family — his meatloaf-making wife (Amy Ryan), plus three flag-pledging kiddos who practice Bert the Turtle’s “Duck and Cover” drills in class — question his loyalties.

Because this is Hanks we’re dealing with, audiences know what to expect, though the revelation here is Rylance (an actor Spielberg also cast as his forthcoming BFG), who appears utterly transformed — to the few who recognize his typically charismatic screen presence — into a balding, Eeyore-like gray moth of a man. Though there can be no doubt Abel is a spy, the film prefers to depict him as a relatively innocuous painter, earning from us a sympathy that no American citizen would have felt at the time. This is an essential strategy in all that follows, as “Bridge of Spies” depends on our believing that Donovan and Abel are the most noble men in the film, both committed to their respective ideals: in Donovan’s case, “what makes us Americans” (the Constitution), and in Abel’s, doing whatever he’s told to undermine it.

If the basic narrative of “Bridge of Spies” were to take place today and a foreign agent were arrested in New York, the poor sap — who’d surely be labeled a “terrorist,” rather than a “spy” — would be shipped off to some torture-friendly detainment facility never to be heard from again, not assigned a lawyer of Donovan’s caliber. But Spielberg has no room for such cynicism, recasting the Coens’ neo-nihilist distrust of the system as comedy (they reworked “Suite francaise” co-writer Matt Charman’s script, and while he was the one to unearth this terrific true story, the siblings’ fingerprints are all over its telling). Here, profoundly disturbing revelations about how America operates are played for a chuckle, as when the judge for the case (Dakin Matthews) denies Donovan’s request for due process, adding that he hopes his client is found guilty as swiftly as possible.

Simultaneous with all of Donovan’s legal dealings, another spy story unfolds, as the CIA recruits an elite group of pilots to “drive” high-altitude camera-equipped U-2 planes over Soviet airspace. As “Bridge of Spies” repeatedly — and rather eloquently — reminds, the Cold War was one of information, not necessarily weaponry, and in these exciting if somewhat clunkily integrated scenes, we see how America fought for an edge in this intelligence battle. We also meet lantern-jawed Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who will be shot down in the film’s most dynamic sequence — a rare taste of action amid so many slick wheeler-dealer proceedings.

As it turns out, insurance-savvy Donovan was right to plead that the judge spare Abel’s life, as the Soviet spy now gives America a bargaining chip to trade for Powers’ return — a responsibility that falls to Donovan after Hoffman, the CIA stooge (Scott Shepherd) who’d strong-armed him earlier, returns to beg his assistance. Given the political sensitivities between the two atomic-trigger-happy nations, the Agency insists that Donovan make the deal as a private citizen with no ties to the U.S. government, which suits the film just fine, as it gives Hanks every opportunity to go rogue.

The CIA is only interested in Powers, but Donovan — who tells his family that he’s going salmon fishing in England — has decided that he won’t settle for less than two freed Americans: He plans to bargain for the release of a second prisoner as well, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American economics student who managed to get himself caught on the wrong side of the newly erected Berlin Wall. Pryor complicates things not only for the deal, but for the script as well, though a sappy re-enactment of his arrest does provide Spielberg with the chance to show the construction of the landmark that later came to signify the Iron Curtain.

A scene in which Donovan watches East German escapees gunned down while trying to scale the wall, later echoed by fence-climbing children back home in New York, goes a touch too far, the sentimental girl-in-red indulgence the director allows himself here. Otherwise, Spielberg plays much of what unfolds in the film’s overseas second-act for absurdist humor: With the exception of Sebastian Koch’s enigmatic East German lawyer, the Krauts are all played by odd-looking character actors with silly accents — although to be fair, the crew-cut G-Men aren’t especially nuanced either.

The movie slyly manages to have it both ways, criticizing the sort of blind American boosterism of the era while indulging in cheap xenophobic barbs, as when Donovan criticizes newly christened countries the German Democratic Republic and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for choosing names that are far too long, evidently forgetting the mouthful from which he hails. Spielberg knows where to draw the line, however, maintaining a measure of hindsight-enhanced criticism amid his Hollywood fantasy (the CIA’s willingness to sacrifice Pryor seems especially damning in an otherwise generally Pollyanna-like portrayal).

But it’s hard to object when the artifice is pitched at such a high level, an illusion spun amid top-level contributions from a core team of first-time collaborators that includes sets by Adam Stockhausen (the production designer responsible for building “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), Hanks’ wardrobe of Atticus Finch-worthy suits from “Capote” costumer Kasia Walicka-Maimone and a duly patriotic score from Thomas Newman. Still, where would he be without longtime d.p. Janusz Kaminski, who does wonders here with shadows, while building up Hanks’ heroism from unexpected angles.

One shot in particular, in which a paranoid Donovan crouches behind a parked car in the rain, feels every bit as iconic as “The Third Man’s” reveal of the thought-late Harry Lime standing in a Vienna doorway. And the high-angle climax could be something out of a nouveau Western, as Hanks saunters out onto the snow-covered Glienicke Bridge — the hand-off spot that lends the film its name — and brokers the deal in person. If this finale seems to lack something in suspense, it compensates in poignance. Over the course of the previous two-plus-hours, both Donovan and audiences have grown close to the uncrackable Soviet agent being returned to his bosses. We care more about his fate than we do either of the Americans coming home, which just goes to show that Hanks has done his job.

Film Review: 'Bridge of Spies'

Reviewed at New York Film Festival, Oct. 4, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 141 MIN.

Production

A Touchstone Pictures release of a DreamWorks Pictures, Fox 2000 Pictures, Reliance Entertainment presentation, in association with Participant Media, in co-production between Afterworks Limited, Studio Babelsberg, of an Amblin Entertainment/Marc Platt production. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Platt, Kristie Macosko Krieger. Co-producers, Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Charlie Woebcken. Executive producers, Adam Somner, Daniel Lupi, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King.

Crew

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay, Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Camera (color, widescreen), Janusz Kaminski; editor, Michael Kahn; music, Thomas Newman; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; supervising art directors, Marco Bittner Rosser, Kim Jennings; art directors, Scott Dougan, Anja Mueller; costume designer, Kasia Walicka-Maimone; sound (Dolby Digital), Drew Kunin; supervising sound editor, Richard Hymns; re-recording mixer, Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom; visual effects supervisors, Charlie Noble, Sven Martin, Dinesh K. Bishnoi; visual effects, Pixomondo, Double Negative; special effects supervisor, Gerd Nefzer; stunt coordinators, Mark Fichera, Sandra Barger; assistant director, Adam Somner; casting, Ellen Lewis.

With

Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, Billy Magnussen, Austin Stowell, Domenick Lombardozzi, Michael Gaston, Sebastian Koch, Marko Caka, Noah Schnapp, Dakin Matthews, Ashlie Atkinson, Will Rogers. (English, German, Russian dialogue)

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  1. The final scene, Mr. Debruge, is about Donovan caring about all the people involved… and the Constitution of the United States. If you’d watched the movie, you’d know “Standing Man” Donovan, by standing square in the face of the CIA, the Secretary of State, the Supreme Court, the KGB, and East Germany… risked his reputation and his life to insure that both Americans came home… and that the Russian was returned home safely. It’s called COURAGE, Pete. Look it up.

  2. K. Kaprow says:

    Gushing musical score, nauseating and predictable Spielbergisms, the bland American Everyman hero…this film was everything I expected, and less.

  3. The street thugs who stole the cloak were Russian agents. That is how the Russian KGB director knows what store he bought it at. They were trying to get any papers that he might have forgotten to remove from his cloak in his threatened state.

    • A Thomas says:

      I thought the Russian KGB director may have had someone in NY watching every move Hanks’ character made. Speaking German, I could at least tell that the thugs spoke with a native Berlin accent, so my guess was that the Russians may have been watching him ever since he took on the case of their spy. But I could be wrong, maybe you’re right. Your assumption at least doesn’t seem as far fetched as mine.

  4. Scott Harrell says:

    This review does a disservice to the movie, the art of cinema and history. I found the film to be superb – masterful and nuanced. The “look” of the film, the art direction, the dialogue, even the haircuts were period-accurate and took me back to a tense period of modern history that seems simultaneously very recent yet also long ago. Methinks one may have to have lived through that period to really ‘get it’ (clearly the reviewer did not). The script, direction, cinematography and acting (especially Tom Hanks in perhaps his best performance) were all at a caliber that has become increasingly rare in movies today.

  5. dorothy says:

    Gosh what a twit you are Mr. Debruge. Most of us visit movies for the immersion and totality of the whole. For those who have not seen this fine movie, you surely gave away all the interesting bits just to nitpick.
    I found the underlying questions to be most provocative given the world today, and well presented.
    I write this as someone born in 1952.

  6. Amy Weber says:

    Surely I am not the only one who thourougly enjoyed and was so excited to see Sean Connery as Abel near the end of Bridge of Spies?

  7. Elliott rothman says:

    The film began in 1957, but wasn’t “set” in 1957. Ever hear of the “bridge of sighs”? As to the various points of view about patriotism, I’ll continue to regard it as the last refuge of scoundrels. My memories of diving under my desk in grammar school when commanded to do so by the “teacher” suggests to me that the scoundrels were firmly in charge during the Cold War – on both sides. Have things improved?

  8. Ben says:

    In the “Filed Under” string below the article, it would seem “Amy Adams” should have been “Amy Ryan,” eh?

  9. Steven Snyder says:

    Why does the reviewer feel the need to call the attorney a “shyster”? The Tom Hanks’ character is not depicted as doing anything dishonorable. Instead, he is acting as we hope all attorneys will act: Zealously and honestly representing a client, regardless of the attorney’s own feelings towards that client. Moreover, the word has anti-semitc overtones. “Shyster” may have nothing to do with Shylock, but we have seen too many writers use “shyster” to demean both Jews and attorneys.

    • Cheri says:

      Thank you for pointing this out. I was offended by the reviewer’s use of that word.

      • Peter Debruge uses “shyster” as anyone uses a buzzword… to hide from reality. He also uses “enemy spy” in the same context that we once used the word “blood thirsty savage” and today, “terrorist.” It allows him to despise a person he knows nothing about, and protects him from the responsibility of finding out.

      • Ann Medlock says:

        Hear hear. I fear the reviewer is too clever by half, and not nearly well enough versed in the English language nor in history. I saw “shyster” and thought perhaps he was writing English as a second language.

  10. Jay Justicee says:

    For the reviewer: It takes an idiot to call this attorney a shyster.

  11. NCSU68Grad says:

    Saw it tonight. As a 70 YO who went through the bomb “stop and drop” drills and had plans for bomb shelters handed out at the State Fair….along with a list of food and staples and essentials, perhaps the realism and the attention to detail are lost on those that did not live through it.

    Remember Nikita Khrushchev, live on our little B&W TV pulling off his shoe and banging it. Ambassador Stevenson looked like he was shot at and missed.

    One comment on the technical aspects of the movie….The U-2 Plane scene was so “lame” that it was embarrassing. There were better special effects in Star Wars, III.

    There was also a faux pas….the opening scenes are 1957, but there was a 1958 Green and White Chevrolet Biscayne in the movie. OK, it COULD have been in the fall….but, it was a bit tacky. They used a 1957 Chevy later on…..in the 60’s swap scenes. Should have “swapped” them for believeability. The Government WOULD have purchased the Biscaynes.

    As to the story line and plot and Tom Hanks and others…..it was superb. There was NO politicizing….so Dem, Repub, Independent and even Atheist could enjoy it.

    As we were exiting the theater, there was a “pollster” asking folks what they remembered and thought…..and IF they remembered the “Product Placements. Coke (the drink) was prominent in one scene. Interestingly, the use of cigarettes was greatly downplayed. Abel lit up once….and the German Street gang (straight out of Grease) where heavy smokers. The main characters, PROBABLY, would have been heavy puffers.

    I give it a 10….out of 10. Came away curious about the accuracy and also felt that it was something that I would want my grown children to see….although they probably could NOT imagine what their parents went through in the 50’s and 60’s. The Cuban Missile Crisis was harrowing….as was JFK’s death.

  12. Marc Schneider says:

    I was going to comment about what seemed to me to be the reviewer’s somewhat hyperbolic cynicism about the American system. After all, Abel did get a lot more due process than was typical in the Soviet Union and he was, in fact, guilty. I was going to do that until I read the silly bullshit from the right-wing nutjob patrol that thinks anyone that disagrees with them is a terrorist.

    Bernie Sanders is not a communist, not even close to being a communist. If you had any idea of the difference between a socialist (which I’m not even sure he is) and a communist, you would understand that. In fact, Stalin turned on the socialists because they were not communists. Of course, it’s pointless to expect right-wingers to actually know something.

    It’s amazing to me that these so-called patriots have no idea what the United States is supposed to stand for-other than, apparently, having a lot of cool weapons that can kill a lot of people.

  13. IT 2 IT says:

    INTEL run Hollywood –STEPPED ON– the awesomely relevant
    ————————–65th Anniversary of the KOREAN WAR
    ————————————to bring us decades OFF point,
    ——————————————–self serious sideshow drivel?
    ——————————————————————- – – —-like THIS? ? ?

  14. tlsnyder42 says:

    The movie shows the commies shooting down citizens trying to escape into West Berlin. This is what the Soviet spy in the movie gives his loyalty to. Someone in the movies says he’s just doing his job. Yeah, right? Like the Nazi stormtroopers carrying out Hitler’s orders to murder six million Jews?

  15. Dr. James J. Stewart says:

    Peter DeBruge is surely not an American patriot. That’s how much times have changed since I spent 32 years in US military uniform during the Cold War to include combat.

    Communism stinks, no matter what Bernie Sanders says.

    • tlsnyder42 says:

      Contrary to what Peter says, the Berlin Wall scenes give some needed perspective in the movie, because, until then, the movie seems like an excuse for communist tyranny. Of course, Spielberg and his friends keep giving tons of money to the Anti-American leftist radicals, liars, tyrants, and murderers now leading the Democratic Party.

  16. jim23414 says:

    In case you care, I stopped reading when you said full “R”. That’s not the line. Either quote the line, or use your own words. Don’t change the line. You didn’t write it, you don’t get to change it.

    • Paridell says:

      I didn’t stop reading at “full R”, if only because I don’t know the reference. Could you let me in on it?

      I saw the film today and I thought it was great. I remember those days and I thought it brought them out very well. My son, born 1990, also thought it was excellent.

  17. Mark Rubin says:

    Not sure what to make of the comment about the Berlin wall and the theatric comparison mentioned to some NYC kid climbing a fence. Let’s be clear about the intended purposes. These structures are typically used to demark property borders so that those that are not supposed to be within the safety of the defined perimeter do not try to enter uninvited. Those that rightfully reside inside are free to come and go as they like. This includes the wall that Israel is building to keep out those that would see it fine to blow themselves up and take innocent lives with them, or perhaps a wall at the southern border of the US to keep out a flood of people who do not seem to think they need to obey immigration laws. Contrast this with a wall like in E Berlin. This was not constructed to keep others out but to keep those inside the wall locked in, with no freedom, prisoners within their own countries, who would be shot if they tried to leave. Call it a fence or a wall, it is the purpose that is the distinction and so many turn a clear distinction of good and evil into a murky muddy mess. Maybe it is Variety’s review and not Spielberg’s doing…I do not know…but to compare the Belin Wall to a NYC kid climbing a fence? C’mon.

    • Patrick says:

      It is called contrast. Obviously he did not intend to mean that they are the same. It is hard to evaluate art through the eyes of right wing ideology.

  18. what an amazing film.
    can’t wait to see this film. no one brings this type of story to the screen but spielberg.

  19. cadavra says:

    Having seen Rylance on stage several times, I’m thrilled to hear he finally has a film role worthy of his enormous talents.

  20. Does Variety review films or just provide a rundown of major plot points from beginning to end, thus spoiling the film for everyone who isn’t privileged enough to attend Festival Screenings?

  21. davidkachel says:

    The movie may be good, but the review was too boring to continue reading.

    • Hal Three says:

      Next time we’ll be sure and just text you a thumbs up or down, kid. Sorry to confuse you with, like, so many big words..

      • tlsnyder42 says:

        Well, the reviewer does give away a lot of the movie’s plot points. Boredom has nothing to do with big words or short words. If David believes the review was too boring, that’s a valid opinion that tells us nothing about how intelligent David is or is not.

  22. SpyFan says:

    “If the basic narrative of “Bridge of Spies” were to take place today and a foreign agent were arrested in New York City, the poor sap — who’d surely be labeled a “terrorist,” rather than a “spy” — would be shipped off to some torture-friendly detainment facility never to be heard from again, not assigned a lawyer of Donovan’s caliber.”

    Does the reviewer perhaps remember the collection of 10 Russian illegals (as opposed to spies operating under diplomatic immunity) captured in New York circa 2010? They were all sent home rather quickly in a prisoner exchange. The most photogenic, Anna Chapman, went on to become a model and TV host.

    Try to moderate your reflexive anti-Americanism. I know it’s hard for you Hollywood related types.

    • Patrick says:

      People who supported the war crimes committed against terrorism suspects are the real anti Americans. The Constitution is what makes us Americans.

      • Richard says:

        “The Constitutution is what makes us Americans.” Tell that, please, to the political people that Steven Spielberg supports (i.e. the President and his minions).

      • tlsnyder42 says:

        Foreign terrorists who purposely bomb civilian areas are war criminals, not soldiers or even spies of from a recognized nation. They have information that may stop other terrorist acts.

  23. Barbara Moore says:

    “…which benefits from a crackling Coen brothers script polish…”

    I have not seen the movie or read the screenplay(s) so I’m making no judgement whatsoever on either, but this has always been a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I’m just curious, Mr. Debruge, did you read the original script or scripts?

    If not, how do you know it ‘benefited’ from the polish? I imagine that one sentence would be incredibly painful for the original writer/writers to read. How do you know the original script wasn’t better? In fact, if you didn’t read any of the scripts, how do you know any of them were ‘crackling’ or not?

    Film critics who mention the ‘script’ at all should be required to actually read the scripts. Case in point: arguably the most memorable scene in ‘Taxi Driver’ (which won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay) is the ‘Are you talking to me…” scene. Not in the script. An ad-lib moment.

    Can we please stop judging a script based on the film that was made from it?

    • I agree completely with Spyfan. That was an absurd, shallow, know-nothing statement by apparent absurd, shallow, know-nothing. This review totally turned me away from seeing this movie. I’m sure in Hollywood, the feeling is that the Russians were as harmless then as Islamic terrorists are today. A figment of the right wing imagination. I also caught the moral equivalency as well. If you want to see great cold war fiction, watch “Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy”.

      • tlsnyder42 says:

        I don’t think the Geneva conventions apply to terrorists who aren’t agents of a nation state.

      • Patrick says:

        No one ever said the Soviets or Islamic terrorists were harmless. Only a know nothing would believe people actually believe that. Real Americans believe in the constitution and the Geneva conventions.

    • Ken says:

      Paul Schrader’s script for “Taxi Driver” did not win an Academy Award. In fact, it wasn’t even nominated.

      • Bill B. says:

        Seems like everyone here has some sort of complaint. Not sure it’s something that I will run out to see, but it sounds like he’s made a good film.

  24. JE Vizzusi says:

    OMG! It would be nice to never compare anything to “The Third Man”
    A 2015 FIlm Noir attempt is implausible!

    • babette says:

      I hate film reviews. The reviewer never knows when to shut up and not give something away. I will see the film if it interests me, not if some stranger saw it and liked it or not.

  25. Movie Expert says:

    U-2 planes.. that reminds me Bono daughter Eve plays tom hanks daughter

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