Films about the Cold War are steadily going the way of the WW2 subgenre. With such a wealth of history and years’ worth of developments, it only makes sense movies would draw from what went on in those dangerous times. You had clandestine operations, nuclear tension, proxy wars, and of course, espionage. Thanks to 007, spy movies have dominated the Cold War subgenre almost to the point of banality. It is not often, however, we see espionage in the context of reality. It is always in some form or another fictitious and romanticized with fancy gadgets, beautiful women, and eccentric villains that have more in common with cartoons. Bridge of Spies seems to subvert those expectations with its portrayal of the 1960 U-2 incident. How does it handle real-life espionage in an industry obsessed with the fictional?
I was delighted to find Steven Spielberg was at the helm of Spies. He might have sounded like an idiot for his comment on the superhero genre, but I still respect him as a creator. I grew up on his movies and as I got older I learned to appreciate their more artistic qualities. In recent years he has not been very active as a director, taking up the role of a producer on a variety of projects. When he would direct it was nonetheless notable and Spies is his return to form.
Following the apprehension of Soviet spy Rudolf Able, played by Mark Rylance, the US government makes insurance lawyer James Donavan, played by Tom Hanks, his defense attorney. After saving Abel from execution, an American spy plane crashes in Russia and the pilot Francis Powers, played by Austin Stowell, is captured alive. With two lives at risk, Donavan must organize a prisoner exchange lest America and the Soviet Union go to war.
Spies feels like pre-2000s Spielberg. Gone is the conventional editing and camera style he adopted following Saving Private Ryan, replaced by a more classical aesthetic similar to Schindler’s List, the most well made movie since Citizen Kane. While it does not achieve that level of depth, Spies is still a beautiful work. With the many long shots are few cuts in between that show great detail in the sets and composition. There is an emphasis on heavy lights and darks punctuated by shines and twinkles, keeping with the noir feel. In many places there is no music as the tension builds, relying on visuals, environmental audio, and acting to convey emotion. The best scenes are at the beginning and when Donavan goes to East Berlin. There are no subtitles, but you can figure out what people are saying based on body language and tone of voice.
Being a movie with a classical feel, the pacing is a slow burn of 142 minutes. Spies takes a long time to get to its plot points and does not move on until it explains everything it has to say in great detail. It is slightly forgivable as the story is based on true events, but there was plenty of content that could have been cut and streamlined to make it a far better sit.
It is no surprise Hanks was great. He steals the show in just about everything he is in. As for the rest of Spies’ cast, they did an admirable job keeping up. Rylance was believable as a spy in his twilight years… and that is about it. Nobody really stood out because they probably knew it was pointless and I do not blame them. Hanks is that good of an actor and trying to upstage him is futile.
Bridge of Spies is a treat for fans of Spielberg. It is everything he used to be before falling into mild obscurity. I do not know if this is a return, but it more than makes up for the years of absence. It is also a great historical drama for those fascinated by the Cold War. If you can stand the runtime, consider getting a ticket.