After talking his way out of getting shot by Somali pirates, Tom Hanks now tackles the Russian and United States governments in Bridge of Spies.
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In Bridge Of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance lawyer empowered by the United States constitution, with a very healthy moral compass. The year is 1957. The period is the Cold War. The word around the streets is paranoia. The United States and the Soviet Union have engaged in a battle of silent attrition in a manner that would have made Hitchcock drool with anticipation.
In the midst of all this, a Russian spy is captured by the FBI, and thrust into Donovan’s care for a fair trial. Why Donovan? We are not so sure. It has something to do with Donovan being very good at what he does, which seems to mainly involve debating with hard-nosed CIA agents about the value of human life – he does very little lawyering in this movie, and indeed, the reason for his appointment is never explicitly clarified. Nevertheless, Donovan suggests using the spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), as leverage, in case an American should require rescuing from across the Atlantic.
And that’s where I leave the plot, for it appears simple and straightforward. If I were to explain any further, you’d find yourself gradually sinking into a quagmire of unwanted subplots and haphazardly strewn-together character developments.
Spielberg has a way of turning human tragedy into miraculous triumph. He paints very broad heroes on narrow, focused canvases. Schindler’s List (1993) carefully marked the lowest point for the Nazi empire, but gave birth to one of its greatest crusaders. His A.I. (2001) chartered the human desires of an android as it journeyed slowly towards love and understanding. His Munich (2005) questioned what it meant to be a nationalist, and what the cost was of seeking bloody revenge. This makes it all the more unusual that Bridge Of Spies seems to lose all sense of humanity, despite concentrating much effort on its humans.
This has a lot to do with the screenplay; written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, it comes across as though three historians have been bound at the wrists and ankles by the Historical Accuracy In Film Adaptations committee. They almost seem obliged to include the most trivial details in order to keep their story on a path straight and true.
There are also strange tonal shifts. The first third plays out with the dramatic tension of To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). Then it descends into espionage and danger. There is a standalone CGI showcase as a spy plane spirals down through the clouds to its death, and then the rest of the movie unfolds over smoky hotel rooms and interminable table conferences, with a hackneyed conclusion.
Yes, I understand that true events must be revered, but sometimes it takes less to tell more. There is still a lot to appreciate about Bridge Of Spies; it’s a powerful parable of American resilience. Hanks is also sturdy and reliable as the driven lawyer, but the film seems bloated with a few too many heavy scenes. With a trim here and a snip there, Spielberg, who usually masters material like this, would have had something great.
Bridge of Spies is available in Australian cinemas from October 22nd
Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox