Movie Review: “Bridge of Spies”

Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell
Steven Spielberg

Certain things go together. Peanut butter and chocolate. Jack and ginger (yes, ginger, not Coke. Try it). “Bridge of Spies,” on the other hand, is proof positive that Steven Spielberg (the film’s director), and Joel and Ethan Coen (the film’s co-screenwriters), absolutely do not go together. In fact, this would have been a much better movie had the Coens directed it themselves. There are these subtle, effective and surprisingly funny moments that are clearly the Coens’ work, and then Spielberg steps in and drowns everything else in syrup. That it remains a watchable movie is in spite of Spielberg’s efforts, not because of them.

It is the late ‘50s, and Cold War paranoia is at an all-time high. The FBI captures Brooklyn resident, and Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), and the government assigns a local law firm to represent him. The case is assigned to James Donovan (Tom Hanks), even though he is primarily an insurance lawyer. James quickly realizes that no one is interested in giving Rudolph a fair trial, which only leads James to fight even harder to get him one, regardless of the hardships that may mean for him and his family. He loses, but successfully lobbies to pardon Rudolph from getting the death penalty, arguing that the U.S. would be wise to keep him around as a bargaining chip.

Sure enough, James proves to be right, as American pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured after his U-2 spy plane is bombed out of the sky by the Russians, and he is sentenced to hard labor in a Russian prison. The U.S. government asks James if he can negotiate an unofficial trade with the Russians to swap Rudolph for Powers. James is game, but he wants to sweeten the deal by also getting the Russians to convince the German Democratic Republic – who are building the wall between East Berlin and West Berlin as these events are taking place – to also release Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an economics student that the GDR has falsely accused of espionage in the hopes that they will get invited to the political big boy table.

The first 15 minutes of this movie are near-perfect. We are introduced to Hanks as he is discussing an insurance case with the prosecuting attorney, and he is dazzling. The dialogue is snappy, and Hanks’ timing is sublime. (He’s worked with the Coens before, and his understanding of their rhythms is on full display.) There is no musical score. The film is given a chance to breathe. And then the CIA get involved in James’ life, Thomas Newman’s score kicks in (more on that later), and the movie ticks off every ‘good man persecuted for doing the right thing’ trope in the book. Dirty looks on the train. Drive-by shooting into his house, and to add insult to injury, the cop on the scene verbally assaults James. The judge of Rudolph’s trial denies him any attempt at a fair one, despite ample evidence. The movie trades one set of clichés for another when James travels to Berlin to negotiate the exchanges, and even then, it’s not quite the cat-and-mouse game that it’s proposed to be. It’s more like a game of Texas hold ‘em, but everyone is playing with house money and has nothing to lose. Not once is there the sense that James or the U.S. stand to lose anything. In a spy thriller, that’s not a good thing.

Writing scores is undoubtedly hard, but Newman’s score here is just unbearable. The most shocking thing about it is how lacking in self-confidence it is. It sounds like the kind of thing a musically talented teen who’s only seen a handful of movies (all directed by Spielberg, presumably) might write. “Wait, tense moment; write some shrill string lines. Patriotic moment here; use a bunch of snare drums and press rolls.” It’s really that simplistic, and very distracting.

I’ve spent most of this review ripping this film to shreds, but the opening of “Bridge of Spies” was so unbelievably good that it nets out in the middle. There is nothing original about it after the opening, but it gets a pass because of the moments where there is a Coen-esque moment of genius or levity. That they follow some of those moments with another moment of blatant hypocrisy – Hanks’ character tells someone that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about him, only to follow that with two (!) scenes of Hanks’ character’s redemption at the hands of random strangers, in addition to his own somewhat estranged family– appears to be irrelevant. This movie will seem fine up until the credits roll, but it will have you asking yourself a lot of questions as you’re walking to the car.