Bridge of Spies ★★★

"It doesn't matter what people think. You know what you did."

Captain America: The Winter Lawyer

Really well made film, beautiful but not groundbreaking, with some great political awareness in the beginning that ultimately falls out by the end.

Bridge of Spies is strongest when it's doing its belief in principles vs. pretense of principles thing. Tom Hanks stands by the ideals America was founded on, but the politicians and other government figures around him merely want to uphold the facade of those principles but violate them in secret whenever possible. I really love principled characters (one of the reasons I enjoy Captain America so much) and Tom Hanks does a great job with it. One of my favorite scenes in the movie involves him explaining how the constitution makes us American (the speech that was cut up for the trailer), which could have easily come off as cloying or overly sentimental or even ignorantly naive, but Hanks really sells it as the central tenant of his character (and consequently of the film itself).

This is also unfortunately part of what I don't like as much about the film. It's as its weakest when it's drawing a contrast between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., rather than comparing them or showing how they're the same. It's too ready to praise America at the expense of its enemies, which I find problematic on the face of it, but which also doesn't mesh well with the contrast between Hanks and those around him (and which is exacerbated by Spielberg's signature sentimentality). The point of the first half wants to be that the corruption in America is soiling the principles it was founded on and that we're turning into our enemies, but then when we see the U.S.S.R. in the second half it's so much worse than America the point gets lost in the stolen coats, endless bureaucracy, and meaningless trials.

In particular, there's a scene where Tom Hanks sees people being shot trying to scamper up a wall to safety, and this image is directly mirrored back in the U.S. where children scamper over a fence but without the gunmen shooting at them. It's as if the movie is saying, "At least it's not so violent here!" Hanks's discomfort in Germany (which is alleviated immediately on his return to America) rests almost entirely on this unspoken foundation of nationalist ideology. This is the counterpoint to something like Sicario, which I loved so much because of the way it undermines the very same semblance of normalcy that Bridge of Spies celebrates. All Hanks wants to do is get back to the shining beacon that is America, and this oversimplification seemed like a betrayal of the beginning of the film.

Perhaps it's unsurprising that in a year with at least six enormous spy movies, the first one that isn't an action movie is also one of my favorites (you'd never guess given my relatively low rating, but it is). The character drama is more persuasive than the narrative drama (whereas in the action-based spy movies the narrative is more compelling than the characters), but I think that about everything recently so maybe that's more my journey than the movie's. In any case, this is where the Coens' writing comes through the most clearly, particularly in the character of Abel, who could really use about half an hour more screen time (and a less obvious name).

Overall it's a very well made movie, and I have a lot of respect for how quiet and clean and controlled it's able to be at times (the mostly silent opening scene in particular, which along with Spectre and Sicario is maybe one of the best of the year). It might not be taking any big risks, but it's successful even if its goals are modest. I'm not quite as in love with it as I hoped to be (it's hard to have reasonable expectations for a Steven Spielberg movie written by the Coen brothers), but the cast and crew are all on their game and I still found it consistently entertaining even with its relatively long run time. If you can get by on two and a half hours of Tom Hanks on his A-game, you'll only be pleased with Bridge of Spies.

Steven Spielberg | 2015: U.S. | Global

Andrew and I are recording our podcast on this and The Army of Shadows tonight, so stay tuned for more! Maybe Andrew can convince me not to be so cynical about everything!