The Oscars Countdown: Bridge of Spies

The Glienicke Bridge, scene of Cold War spy exchanges, Flickr, Roberto Maldeno

Anthony Parker has a less than favourable opinion on Spielberg’s latest spy thriller, Bridge of Spies.

What could you say about Spielberg’s latest historical expedition? The leading actors deliver performances not little short of alchemy, and the subject matter – the treatment of political prisoners, enemies of the state or terrorists – is a topic requiring hard democratic scrutiny.

Sadly, for this critic, ‘Bridge of Spies’ is not that. At the end of the day it remains a spy thriller without the spies. It’s based on James Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) defense of the Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), and his efforts in negotiating the exchange of Abel with two Soviet prisoners that Americans captured in Russia and East Germany. It isn’t at first glance the easiest tale to pull a five-act structure from, but you can’t fault a guy for trying. If the proof of the tale is in the telling, then you may reasonably fault him for everything else.

At the end of the day it remains a spy thriller without the spies.

The film through its entirety rests on an awkward wordlessness. The screen ejaculates screeching steel breaks, the heavy footfalls of cork on flagstones, an almost unceasing, discordant symphony, which in the first scene (that must go on for seven minutes), entirely replaces dialogue. This recalcitrant streak pervades the film visually as well as audibly. The camera shoots from between the generous, baggy trousers of federal agents. Tom Hank’s expressive picture is either left in shadow or neglected, so Spielberg can indulge his habit of filming the back of his head. Strangely, this idiosyncrasy does not manifest itself in a feeling of paranoia, which would behove a film set in the jumpy era of McCarthyism. The shots don’t come from the possible perspective of a voyeuristic agent but from the middle space – neither intimate nor invasive. This manages (somehow) to imply the ever-presence of Divine Providence to such a complete degree – even the news of Abel’s imminent execution completely loses its punch.

It is a strangely sober depiction of the Age of Plastic, Elvis or Oppenheimer. I was forcibly reminded of another film set only years before Abel’s case was heard. ‘Good Night and Good Luck’, directed by George Clooney and starring himself, David Strathairn and Robert Downey Jr, which depicts the historic contention between Edward R Murrow, the first, greatest television journalist of America and the Junior Senator of Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy. The film is shot in black and white, incorporates original footage of the Junior Senator and much of Murrow’s original speeches. Strathairn gives an inspired performance as the popular, principled countermeasure to McCarthy’s demagogic fascism, but what particularly inspired this comparison was how each director set about capturing the feel of the time. In Clooney’s film, the cinereal frames were laced with the coils and swimming streams of lit cigarettes. The conflicts between public fear of Communism and public reverence for the fig leaf of the Constitution – and the freedom from investigation of that holy calf, the American Armed Forces – are elucidated but never laboured. The game for the hearts and minds of the American people is treated with the utmost care by the protagonists but the ugly theatrical masks of jingoism and simplicity are left locked out of sight an out of mind.

The shots don’t come from the possible perspective of a voyeuristic agent but from the middle space – neither intimate nor invasive. This manages (somehow) to imply the ever-presence of Divine Providence to such a complete degree – even the news of Abel’s imminent execution completely loses its punch.

Not so in Bridge of Spies, whose very name, being frank, reeks of sensationalism. There is base pandering to the sense of action or of drama which the film entirely lacks. The good guy Donovan expatiates the virtues of the ‘Rule Book’ (the Constitution) thusly: ‘Everyone deserves a defense. Every person matters’ to those who claim pragmatism means ‘bigger issues’ exist.

In a way, Spielberg’s nation has not grown since Lincoln’s time. These are the backwoodsmen he portrayed in his 2012 film Lincoln. The backwoods are an urban jungle of Classicism, courts and suburbia, and the trim purpose of the 19th Century is replaced by jowls and insulating cloaks of fat, yet the cultural or intellectual effect of two World Wars, splitting the atom, of an hundred years of art and science – of history, seems to have skipped this country by. Bridge of Spies, then, is like a child’s retelling or conception of a conflicted time. Reporters carry cuboid Hasselblad’s and drop their bulbs, which coat the floor of the court like rose petals, but this is an analogue world. Radio’s appearance is perfunctory rather than resonant. This is not the time of Hollywood, the American Dream, the Chevrolet or Madison Avenue. After the Kleenex-clean world of America one feels a stiff chill breath of relief when you finally view Berlin with its cobbles, a crowd milling round the cars, a Russian tank with cranes and smog, dirty buildings and dirtier citizens (for a few brief moments). Soon he leads you back once more to the ahistorical fable seen from chest height, and while reviewing a thousand neckties and two thousand buttons one cannot help but ask: Is this the man who directed Schindler’s list?

Soldiers yell ‘Schtudent?’ while a loud American screams back ‘Ich bien’. There’s a forest of conical East German helmets but by now you’re half asleep. If this film is not blindly uncritical at least it is blind. There’s no perceptions of psychology or politics or drama. It seems a lot like wires and lights in a box. The last cogent thought that flicks through your brain is what the hell happened to Spielberg?

 

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance), Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture
Why You Should Watch It:
Not for the first time,  and certainly not for the last, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance deliver what prove to be vivid, memorable performances that outstretch what the job could reasonably call for.
What It Was Missing:
Everything that’s not Mark Rylance or Tom Hanks.
The Worldly Rating: **

 

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