A Bridge Built Too Quickly: Structural Work Needed

My dad grew up in Miami Beach in the late 50s and early 60s. He told me about the duck and cover drills they ran every day in elementary school. He told me that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, they’d duck and cover twice or three times a day. He told me there was no fear, only anxiety. ‘If’ was a forgone conclusion, but ‘when’ drove everyone nuts. In Spielberg’s newest film, the Cold War historical drama, Bridge of Spies, there’s no genuine anxiety. There isn’t even real fear. There’s simply a story of the ultimate, incorruptible American hero. The Cold War atmosphere just feels obligatory.

Brooklyn, 1957. The F.B.I., with some tenuous legality, captures the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). The U.S., to parade how staunchly it holds the ideals of justice and liberty, taps the high-powered insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend Abel. Donovan had experience in the Nuremburg courts, so this questionable appointment doesn’t look like a complete farce. The expectation, of course, is that Donovan will roll over and let Abel get the chair, like any good American who loves his country would. But Donovan turns out to be a strict Constitutionalist and a stubborn idealist. I think the only way to put it, really, is that he out-Americas America.

He’s like Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith, but without the naiveté. He’s stern, humble, and amiable. He goes against the will of his boss, of his wife and kids, of his entire country, and he doesn’t falter for a second. He knows he’s doing the right thing (and, looking back 60 years, so do we). He’s the kind of guy you have to root for.

But you never really feel the need to. Unfortunately Bridge of Spies is not like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It is too rushed and anti-climactic. We understand our hero is incorruptible fifteen minutes into this deflated film, but he gets built up this way for more than two more hours. And because his problems come and go so quickly, you’re never really put on edge. Each complication in the procession dulls the next, so when we’re finally left at a moment when something substantial might actually go wrong and our hero might lose, we know, deep down, that everything will work out in his favor.

The two lead actors, Hanks and Rylance, are the only memorable parts of this failed stab at cinematic greatness. The editing has one bright moment: a handful of expert cuts in a haunting scene about the particulars of a nuclear bombing being taught to elementary school students. Other than that, both the editing and cinematography are pretty standard. The other actors, who include big-hitters like Amy Ryan and Alan Alda, don’t have enough screen time to accomplish anything other than move the story along. But Hanks, plain speaking and softly chuckling, does it again. Donovan and his situation don’t lend themselves to the same bold performance that, say, Captain Phillips or John Miller (Saving Private Ryan) did, but Hanks stays appropriately understated. He keeps it low-key and simple, and his charisma makes this faultless character believable.

And though I have some serious doubts about the historicity of Abel’s character (no Soviet spy would ever be so ambivalent toward his country or friendly to an American), this isn’t the History Channel. Abel is the most intriguing character in this big white lie, and he operates on a higher level than the rest of the world. He paints. He tells poetic stories. He gives oddly appropriate Zen-master advice. He looks at death the same way he might a Caesar Salad with too much dressing. And he knows truths that no one else does. Rylance has just the right aloof, pensive look to pull it off. He never smiles, but he never frowns either. He just looks at you and gives the undeniable impression of wisdom.

Bridge of Spies is a two-part movie that should have been one. It wants to do more than it can, so it ends up doing less. But it has Tom Hanks, and he is thankfully true to form: down-to-earth, fatherly, and unimpeachable.

Grade: B. Hanks deserves more, but this is the best I can do.