Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Bridge of Spies

 As a relatively major fan of Tom Hanks, my delay in seeing Bridge of Spies is woefully overdue. By the time this piece of art graced my home from the Redbox, the movie had already taken home one Oscar, and boasted five other nominations, including the highly-coveted Best Picture.

It's now April-- I've been waiting to see this movie since it came out in October. At least I got around to it eventually, and am even writing about it, which is more than I can say for some of the other worthy movies I've seen in the last year or so. Sometimes something is lacking: the fire, the words, maybe even just the time, take your pick. My apologies to Saving Mr. Banks, Inside Out, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Mockingjay Part Two, and I'm sure many others.

But anyway, Bridge of Spies. I don't remember the last time I saw a Cold War movie, so Bridge of Spies gets points right off the bat for taking on a lesser explored but still significant era. I could be wrong, but I think the last Cold War movie I saw was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Back on topic though, it's nice to see a movie where the Soviets as the enemy is historical rather than archetypal. The late 1950's setting depicts men in fedoras and long coats, families who say grace before dinner, and children learning to "duck and cover" in school in case of a bombing. Despite high anti-Russian sentiment, the movie portrays even this time of fear as a simpler and relatively peaceful time in the United States. Even the spy Rudolf Abel calmly boards the subway, paints in the park, and picks up hidden messages without violence or harm to anyone. Abel is a far cry from the glamorized type of spy you would see in most movies today. He doesn't wear a tux, probably couldn't handle a gun, and most certainly wouldn't consort with sultry women. He's a rather simple man; gangly, balding, looking more like a lonely history professor than a spy.

Tom Hanks as James Donovan is thoroughly in his element here. So much so in fact, that at no point did it seem like Donovan's character was much of a stretch for Hanks. Hanks' characters have often demonstrated courage, nobility, and integrity in movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Captain Philips, or Road to Perdition. It would be fair to say that Hanks' excellence in acting has become such a basic unsaid expectation for his movies, that even a perfect performance like this one that captures every element of character with precision and conviction, does not particularly stand out. Donovan is a character that you admire for his lonely stand on behalf of an enemy of the country, and you can't help but be impressed by his logic and intelligence. Yet as a movie character, Donovan is unlikely to be as strongly idolized as Atticus Finch, for example, even though there are multiple parallels.

Going in to Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance had already won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, so I was watching him with more interest than I might have done otherwise. Being completely unfamiliar with Rylance's work in general, I can't comment on how unusual or surprising his role as Abel was. I think he did an excellent job as Abel, but I actually find his Oscar win somewhat surprising after having seen Bridge of Spies. Certainly he played the part well, was likable as a character in how he showed respect and admiration for Donovan, but his performance was fairly straightforward with no real surprises or arcs of emotion at any point. Throughout Bridge of Spies, Abel remained steady and balanced through every turn, even when given the death sentence. 

When it comes to range of skills, spectrum of influence, and passion-driven quality, few directors could compare with Steven Spielberg. While Spielberg is widely celebrated for his genre-defining pieces like Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park, it is in contemplative and character-driven movies like Bridge of Spies that Spielberg's passion shines through in a way that feels meaningful, rather than merely entertaining. Saving Private Ryan, for example, became a defining WWII movie, gracefully blending history and fiction into a tapestry of visceral, heartfelt, and unforgettable art. Bridge of Spies, while packing fewer emotional and visual punches than Saving Private Ryan, and utilizing less fiction in its story, is of a high enough caliber to be to Cold War movies what Saving Private Ryan is to WWII movies (albeit less revered). 

Every frame of Bridge of Spies pays homage to its setting and characters, faithfully delivering a broad perspective (such as the building of the Berlin Wall and the capture of the American pilot) while skillfully maintaining a close and personal look at the relationship between Donovan and Abel. Very few moments feel truly tense, yet the stakes of the story seem so high that even in its slowest moments, Bridge of Spies is simply captivating.

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