I watched this movie twice because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t unduly harsh on it. I really hated it the first time I saw it, but I must confess that I was drunk and really didn’t pay attention to it. Upon my second (and sober) viewing, I’ve reconsidered my position.
Let’s get this out up front right away: I can’t stand Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg hasn’t grabbed me with anything since maybe Schindler’s List. Both have done interesting things in the past, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of them put out anything interesting (they’re so soft now). For the last 20 years, their work has been exactly what deters me from most mainstream Hollywood movies: formulaic feel-good stuff with a tidy ending.
Bridge of Spies is all of that. Based on true events, it’s actually two stories in one movie. During the Cold War era, Brooklyn insurance defense attorney (egads!) James Donovan (Hanks) is asked—no, coerced—by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in a pro bono criminal case. Donovan notices defects in the warrant that led to Abel’s arrest, but no one, including the judge (Dakin Matthews), wants to hear it. All hell breaks loose when Donovan goes full throttle on his defense—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. He loses. Abel goes to jail.
Donovan is then asked by the CIA to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for an American spy (Austin Stowell) captured by the Soviets. While in Berlin, Donovan learns of an American student (Will Rogers) held in East Germany. He unilaterally deals for the release of both Americans—much to the dismay of the CIA agents on the case.
Bridge of Spies might not be schmaltzy, but it’s got no edge to it: it’s a straightforward (though liberal with reality), standard-issue Law and Order type drama. The film is classified as a thriller, but it’s not really; it’s neither particularly intense nor suspenseful. It has its moments, and Rylance is easily the standout performance here. However, the pace is uneven and the story gets dull at points. Donovan’s need to do the right thing in the face of adversity drives the dramatic tension. His “argument” before the Supreme Court is an eyeroll-inducing pitch for an Oscar. Whatever. The ending is typical Spielberg. I didn’t love Bridge of Spies, but I’ve seen much worse.
Side note: I’m surprised to see the Coen brothers attached to this project; it’s not their speed.
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