An American lawyer is recruited by the CIA during the Cold War to help rescue a pilot detained in the Soviet Union.
Have you ever walked out of a movie absolutely loving it only to wake up the next day and not feel the same way? That's what happened to me after having watched Steven Spielberg's latest dramatic effort, "Bridge of Spies." Spielberg has always been my favorite director, after all, he did introduce me to Indiana Jones when I was 9 years old living back in Dublin, Ireland with an absentee father. Because of this, Indy became the father figure I never had in real life and for that, I will always be eternally grateful. However, having said that, each film needs to be critiqued on its own individual merits and unfortunately, "Bridge of Spies" is one of the director's lesser endeavors.
The fact that the film is based on a true story only makes matters worse because as we all know, Spielberg is the master of manipulation but here, it almost seems like he isn't really trying. This is the type of movie that the director and his leading man Tom Hanks, could make in their sleep. It feels like a by-the-numbers project than say, "Schindler's List" or even "Saving Private Ryan," both of which were filled with passion and intensity.
Set during the Cold War, the movie begins in New York City with Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy, being captured by the American government and then enlisting Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to give him what appears to be a fair trial. With the American people wanting Abel to die simply because of who he is and where he comes from, Donovan goes above and beyond what is expected of him and gradually, he and Abel bond. Before the trial, Donovan speaks to the judge in the case, an old friend and asks for leniency in regards to the death penalty. He argues that he knows America has spies in Russia doing the exact same job that Abel was doing and should one of our guys fall into Russian hands, they might be willing to exchange prisoners. The judge reluctantly agrees and soon thereafter, an American U-2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down over Russia and captured.
The CIA ask Donovan to intervene and that he would have to fly to Germany to negotiate Powers' release, during a tumultuous time when the Berlin Wall was being erected. Naturally, he is informed that he would not officially be representing the CIA or indeed the U.S.A, rather, he would be representing the prisoners and were he to be captured, he would be on his own. Being the patriot he is, and wanting to bring Powers back home safely, he agrees. And so the stage is set for an international espionage thriller that unfortunately lacks any real thrills to keep it engaging all the way through.
One of the major issues I had with the film was that you never once felt any real sense of danger, neither for Abel in American custody nor Powers in Russia. We see Powers being doused with a couple of buckets of water and him suffering from sleep deprivation but that is about it. For a movie to be effective, especially when you are dealing with prisoners being held captive by their enemy, you need to instill in the audience, a legitimate sense of dread, that at any moment, the prisoner could be brutally tortured or even killed but that feeling never once surfaces.
I don't particularly want to sit and watch a prisoner being tortured simply for doing their job but you don't have to show a lot, much of it can be implied and still be effective. As Donovan is preparing to go to Europe, we are introduced to the American U-2 pilots and their training and as the movie progresses, we cut back and forth from Donovan to the pilots but once Powers is shot down over Russia, we never see the pilots again. Spielberg introduces us to them, creates likable and patriotic heroes whom we come to care for and then cuts off all interaction with them once Powers is captured. I felt that the story should have concentrated more on Donovan and his escapades in Europe as well as Powers and his imprisonment rather than the pilots who, at the end of the day, other than Powers, served no other purpose in the film other than remind the audience that they existed.
The film introduces a sub-plot involving the arrest of a young American student in Berlin and much like the scenes of the U-2 pilots and their objectives, it never really adds any loftiness to the story. When Donovan discovers this, his initial meeting in Berlin at the Russian embassy to discuss the exchange of Abel and Powers suddenly includes the release of the student as well and adds unnecessary drama to an already dramatic story. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoots the U.S. scenes with a warmth and intensity that is a complete polar opposite to their German counterparts, enveloped in snow, filled with decaying landscapes and a chill in the air, echoing the division within the country that was about to commence and which would last almost thirty years.
While Hanks and Spielberg are in top form, the film itself felt like it needed more urgency, instead of coursing along in neutral. There is never any sense of danger, even to Donovan who at one point after arriving in Berlin, is surrounded by a gang of thugs, demanding money and his coat. I understand that this story is based on real events and even if they happened exactly as they are portrayed in the movie, as a filmmaker, you can take some artistic license and add some much-needed trepidation and apprehension. After all, what is a spy film without them?
In theaters October 16th
For more info about James visit his website at www.IrishFilmCritic.com