Steven Spielberg’s new film takes place in 1957, in the middle of the Cold War, just as the Berlin Wall is going up. The FBI has just captured a Soviet spy in Brooklyn and the powers-that-be want to make an example of him (i.e. send him to the electric chair). But they also want to avoid any accusations of an unfair trial, so they ask respected insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) to defend the spy (Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance). While Donovan is somewhat reluctant to do this, he not only accepts but takes his new job very seriously, insisting on giving Abel the best defence possible. For this, he is hated by the masses and also loses the goodwill of his colleagues and, to some extent, his family.
Donovan perseveres and gets involved in a possible prisoner exchange (a young American pilot has been captured by the Soviets), which is supposed to take place in Berlin. But, once in Berlin, Donovan again insists on playing by his own rules and everything gets messy.
I loved the first 45 minutes or so of this long film (before we go to Berlin). Rylance is absolutely terrific as Abel, Hanks is always good, the cinematography (along with the perfect period detail) provides a tremendous sense of place and time (desaturated colours providing the look of a 50’s film), and the story is tight and fascinating, with some significant social commentary about life in the 50’s as well as today. Great stuff, and Bridge of Spies is heading for four stars.
But then the action (such as there is) begins and suddenly Bridge of Spies becomes boring and predictable. I loved the cinematography even more in Berlin and the acting remained strong, with various great German actors in the key roles. And I loved all the German dialogue without subtitles (might not have loved it so much if I didn’t understand it, but of course that understanding wasn’t necessary). But there was nowhere near enough tension or anything resembling surprise. And, as in The Martian, everything felt too light, given the incredibly dire situation in which the protagonists find themselves. Donovan, in particular, comes across as someone largely unconcerned by the dangers he is facing (there are exceptions), making one witty comment after the other, just like our easygoing martian friend, Mark Whatney.
I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that a Spielberg film would feel ‘light’ but because of the critical acclaim I had hoped for more depth and more tension in what was otherwise a wonderfully-made film. I should also mention that women are treated very badly in this film, relegated to typical supportive roles. I suppose that can be excused by the fact this was typical of life in the late 50’s, but remains a sad fact.
All in all, I was disappointed with Bridge of Spies in a similar way that I was disappointed with The Martian, but, as with The Martian, I need to give it ***+ for all the things it did well. My mug is up, but keep your expectations reined in.