In Review!: “Bridge of Spies”

With nearly 30 films to his credit, Steven Spielberg continues to find new paths of entry into his career-spanning themes: the value of a single human life, the nobility of social outsiders, and, most famously, the impact of fathers. His newest, Bridge of Spies, is a Cold War humanist exercise, exciting in its confident classical tropes and frustrating in its assemblage.

Tom Hanks stars as an everyman insurance lawyer thrust into an unfriendly spotlight when chosen to defend a captured Soviet spy, ultimately compelled by his duty to democracy and attempts to negotiate the safe trade of agents across opposing sides. The story beats are often expected, but perfectly suited to gifts that Spielberg is only recently reinvigorating.

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Spies is a natural successor to his previous efforts with Lincoln, in that exhibits a much more collaborative spirit than which Spielberg has been credited. Though he’s worked with the masters, often having long-spanning partnerships with the likes of John Williams and Janusz Kaminski, his directorial efforts are presented with the lens of one solitary vision. Like Lincoln, Spielberg feels here to be speaking in unison with expert screenwriting and a massive ensemble of actors, though without reaching the consistent heights of that effort.

The script, by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, is as much the star as the director. The Coens’ contribution cannot be denied, with the film punctuated and made unique by their trademark idiosyncrasies and observations. Their clear voice keeps the film freshly era appropriate but prevents a droll, unengaging experience the material is often met with on film. The lighter approach to the subject gives the film more room to breathe than expected and keeps the themes and imagery from becoming maudlin.

And the actor’s run away with the thing. Though presented as a star vehicle for Tom Hanks, this is filled with actors relishing the most of even the smallest of screentime. With the exception of an Alan Alda or Amy Ryan, most of them go unrecognized, but all create this lived-in tapestry, a real embodiment on Spielberg’s thesis of every individual as significant. Mark Rylance, as the captured maybe-Soviet Abel, captivates with minimalism in his moments in the film, enough to dominate a film that uses him sparingly.

The film also plays into some of Spielberg’s weaker impulses. An obtrusive, out of place by the usually stalwart Thomas Newman undercuts the drama unnecessarily, even drowning out an impactful and beautifully wrought monologue by Rylance. The overwhelming desaturated tones, perfectly exhibited in Spielberg/Kaminski pairings like Savign Private Ryan, play as a lazy attempt to make the proceedings feel more austere or a lazy approach to period appropriateness. Even the pinks are grey.

Not to be dismissed, Spielberg here creates sequences that transcend the material, even eclipsing its weaker moments. Two particular standouts, the opening sequence and one at the building of the Berlin Wall, are the kind of career standouts that we’ve been missing from the auteur for some time. Let’s hope he continues to engage this deeply as his past two efforts.

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