Saturday, October 24, 2015

Speaks Reviews: Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies


The Standing Man

★★★★ out of ★★★★

 A Speaks Movie Review

"People think wrong sometimes. People are people." - Rudolf Abel

I get juiced up about Steven Spielberg movies. His latest, Bridge of Spies, is no exception. The trailer hit, and it seemed as if there was nothing but hate. It looks "mmm pretty but typical Spielberg period schtick" and "blah blah blah." These are not direct quotes, but you get the point. People become jaded with certain types of films. I get it. I almost never get excited about a "period piece." We can't blame people for being people. But I am one who wishes to hold onto his idealism for Spielberg, the same idealism has given me over the years.

Warning: I'm fixin' to kiss this movie's ass. 

And, at first, despite an expertly crafted opening sequence, I wasn't sure that would be the case. I felt a little bit bored at first. Maybe not bored, just like, Oh no! Am I tired? Or is this boring? Turns out I was just tired from the big meal and two beers I had just consumed. I woke up a bit, and Bridge of Spies is now in my top two or three of the year so far. 


Here's what happened:  All of a sudden, I fell in love with every single character and piece of casting and bit of Coen Brothers wit and Spielberg skill and Hanks confidence and Kaminski grace and the world-class production design and art direction and costume design and on and on. As expected, Bridge of Spies is a production at the highest level. All of its pieces realizing a story that, in the end, made me proud and patriotic, without ever hitting me over the head with either. 

Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer tasked with defending a man named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who, in that brilliant opening chase, is arrested and charged with espionage. He is indeed a spy for the Soviets, makes no argument for or against, and calmly remains a loyal soldier for his country. Donovan realizes this is a thankless task and takes it anyway. Why? He takes it because that's what the best men do, that's what the bravest men do, that's what John Adams would've done, or Atticus Finch (who he wouldn't have known about), or Juror #8. Like these men, real and imagined characters, Jim Donovan believed that everyone deserves a fair defense. He believes that "all lives matter" and that Rudolf Abel is a human being. 

Donovan's wife, Mary (Amy Ryan), is also a human being, and she is worried about what this might mean to her family. Their daughter, Peggy, is as well, and she is a teenager, always waiting for her date to show up. And his son, Roger, is a human being, and he is worried. He has just been shown a film at school about what happens when an atomic bomb is dropped. "The Communists," he fears, are about to make their move. 

Air Force pilot Francis "Gary" Powers (Austin Stowell) is also a human being and a good pilot and is recruited alongside fellow pilot Joe Murphy (Jessie Plemons) by the CIA to fly secret missions in a new spy plane over Russia. He is given confidential information. He is asked to go down with his ship to avoid capture. He is unable to do so (and I won't spoil why).

Austin Stowell as Air Force Lt. Francis Gary Powers (Gary Powers is my Dad's name.).
Donovan is unable to win his case, despite his belief in Abel as a good man doing his patriotic duty. How could he win? Everyone in America is terrified. For his gallantry, he is only offered menacing stares in exchange, bullets through windows, death threats. He keeps "standing," convinces a judge to spare Abel's life. An exchange may need to be made one day. Well, naturally...Gary Powers is now in the hands of the Soviets. 

Now, the stage is set, Donovan will get his shot at redemption in East Berlin, where he is to negotiate a trade, Powers for Abel. That's it. Don't even think about asking for Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers), the American Ph.D. student held prisoner by the East Germans. His handler, CIA man Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), makes this very clear:  he will be a civilian in a world of spies, a man with no agency and only his wit and skill as a negotiator. Alas, he is also a man willing to take risks and wage bets and hope for the best. He is an idealist. Just like me. Just like Steven Spielberg. 

Steven Spielberg received much praise for his last film, 2012's Lincoln, a film I found beautiful but bloated and overwhelmingly confusing. I just didn't connect to it. Bridge of Spies, I feared, might turn out to be the same. I was wrong.It is just as long as it needs to be. Complicated in plot and dialogue at times, but with no holes, easy to follow. It is a lesson in how to entertain and enlighten at the same time.

Spielberg and his longtime collaborator, the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, fill this film with complicated high and low angles in spaces already closed in, or barred by walls or barbed wire, opening and closing gates and doors, close-ups, lots of close-ups, most notable in the two scenes I've already mentioned. The first being the opening chase and capture of Abel in which the camera moves forward, around, and back in a crowded train, then subway platform, capturing the essence of what it is to follow and be followed. The second being the scene featuring the film Donovan's son sees at school. Stock footage of an atomic bomb, intercut with close shots of children's faces, faces of worry and fear and even tears. In 1957, our world was terrified. We were at war with something nobody could possibly understand. 


Jim Donavan is Tom Hanks at his finest. He is smart and loyal, smooth talking and no-nonsense. He wants to win his part of the fight, he wants to do it quickly, before his head cold gets worse and his wife starts to question if this is really a fishing trip or not. He is blessed with a screenplay that allows him to be all these things. Kudos to Joel and Ethan Coen on their rewrite of a wonderful script originally written by Matt Charman. You sense them in every single character, from the Donovan character to the Abel character to Donovan's East German counterpart in Vogel (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others) all the way down to the smallest of roles, a one scene piece of brilliance featuring an East German diplomat named Ott. He is a bumbling Coen Brothers idiot like none other. 

I opened this review with a quote from this screenplay. A simple one that represents the single central idea of Bridge of Spies. The line is spoken by the British actor Mark Rylance, who plays the Russian spy Rudolf Abel. It comes late in the film as some men stand on a bridge. The line is the the single reason this movie works, the single reason I felt it so deeply, the single reason stories like this one and To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men and the story of President John Adams make us feel so decidedly proud and patriotic. We can't blame people for being people. We can only give them a fair chance to live the life they deserve. 

Note: I read something this morning. One sentence about this film that shook me up. It basically asked what Oscars this movie is supposed to win. Well, if you're asking me, all of them, any of them. I have plenty of movies to see before Oscar nominations come out, and I am not one to make predictions about Oscar. I just don't get that into it until the nominations come out. But this movie is easily the first surefire Best Picture nominee I've seen this year. It will be there, I believe. I can also easily see this getting nods for Directing, Actor, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, and Film Editing. Who really knows? But Bridge of Spies is a perfectly made film. I can find not a single imperfection. 

10 comments:

  1. Great review, buddy! I had this pegged as an Oscar frontrunner since April (where I predicted it to win BP/Director/Screenplay/Cinematography) and while I don't think it's in line to win anything (the reviews are solid but not ecstatic), I think you're right that this is pretty much guaranteed a spot on the ballot. I want to see this, for sure. It's not the kind of film I get all antsy about seeing, but it looks solid, and sometimes solid goes a long way.

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    1. Right on. I'll tell you this: This movie is my horse right now. I WANT this one to take it all. Still plenty to see though.

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  2. Great review! I can't say I'm very excited about this one. Yes, I'm one of the people going "Meh. Typical Spielberg" I don't dislike the guy and I think he's a great director, I just don't get pumped for his movies like I do others. Maybe I'll catch it on DVD, but I'm glad you liked it so much and I'm happy to hear it's not bland.

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    1. Thanks! I can't speak highly enough of this one. I hope when you see it, it blows you away.

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  3. Love the review and the history references of course. I thought this movie did a fantastic job of capturing the tone, mood, and look of the time period. I think it definitely needs to get some Oscar love for production design.

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    1. Thanks, Bird. It really is a masterclass of a production.

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  4. Great review, Kevin! I have been on the fence about this movie, but you have piqued my interest. Actually, you had me on "Coen Brothers wit."

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    1. Thanks, Stephanie! I really hope you get to it soon. Let me know what you think when you do.

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  5. Nice review. I saw this yesterday and really liked it. While I loved Lincoln more than you I agree that it went on too long and had one ending too many this doesn't suffer from that misstep. Tom Hanks is on his A game in this and I'd be shocked if Mark Rylance's name isn't in the supporting actor nominees. I'd say Hanks in actor too but that might be a crowded field so he's not as much of a lock. Now it's true I'm the target audience for this type of film, being a fan of historical dramas, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg but I think anyone who enjoys a well told story would find much in the film.

    The only place I thought the film dropped a stitch was in the relationship between Donovan's daughter and his assistant. We're lead to presume that the person that stood the daughter up was his assistant Doug and that Donovan was unaware that they were dating but it was all terribly vague and then never alluded to again. It was a small thing but it felt that perhaps there was more to it that was edited out so why leave it in as a loose end. I do like Billy Magnussen, the actor that plays his assistant though. He was on the one soap opera, As the World Turns I use to watch about five years ago and it's been interesting to watch his career move steadily forward both in film and on Broadway. Wish he'd been in more of the film.

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    1. Thanks. I too love Hanks and Spielberg and this era of history is wholly fascinating to me as well. I am all for Hanks and Rylance on Oscar ballots. Those would be fully deserved nominations.

      Thanks for the info on Magnussen. I hadn't heard of him before but his short bit in the film was very good. And I did question why that side plot with him and the daughter sort of slid by, but I quickly let go of that and just let this one wash over me. I was totally surprised by this film.

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