Bridge of Spies

I was thinking…

…about how less is often more. This was a tenet often mentioned and sometimes employed during my rather harrowing years in film school.

What does that mean? Well, simply put, good film making means not shoving things in an audience’s face and not embellishing your shots, not going crazy with your camera angles, things like that. Simplicity and a degree of minimalism can make your point and hit the mark sufficiently and, more often than not, more powerfully than an elaborate set-up or melodramatic acting.

With his latest foray, Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg seems to remember that teaching either from his film classes or from his earlier days in the director’s chair. More on that in a minute.

Bridge of Spies is based on the actual events at the height of the Cold War, during which Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel was captured by the FBI.

Tasked by his firm to defend the spy in order to establish the appearance of due process, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom HanksSaving Mr. Banks, Captain Phillips), finds himself the second most hated man in America.

As he gets to know Abel (Mark RylanceThe Gunman), Donovan starts to understand the man and respects his dedication and loyalty to his home country. Because of this, he strives his hardest to mount the best defense he can for the accused spy.

When the guilty verdict inevitably comes and despite the pleas of his family and his employer, Donovan pursues an appeal based on illegally seized evidence. As for sentencing, Donovan believes Abel should be granted imprisonment rather than death in order to have a bargaining chip should one of their own spies fall into Soviet hands.
Meanwhile, a U2 pilot is shot down over the U.S.S.R. and an American studying abroad in Berlin is taken prisoner by the East German powers. Donovan is then recruited by the government to arrange a swap.

Now back to less being more.

Tom Hanks has long established himself as a more than credible actor, but Mark Rylance provides the perfect example of a simple, minimalist performance that can carry so much weight. His scenes with Hanks build a sympathy for the spy. Ironically, Hanks’ character is slightly more difficult and more slow to like.

Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is always top drawer, but his approach also makes for an impressive yet simple set of images. Those images are aided by a steady appearance of cold, natural lighting. This cold pervades the film, as if symbolically representing the state of mistrust in the world and, in a rather on-the-nose way, the actual Cold War.

Cold is also contagious in a symbolic way. Pay attention to the wiping of snot and you’ll see what I mean. At the start of the film, Abel is dabbing away at his olfactory area. Donovan finds his own orifice dripping near the halfway point and even the CIA agent tasked to Donovan’s exchange joins in on the mucus march. It is as if a team of mutual understanding slowly develops symbolized by the transfer of a virus.

But it’s not all minimalism and mucus. The scene during which the U2 is shot down has all the action and punch we have come to expect from a Spielbergian action flick. Although the scene is a short one, it acts as an adrenal intermission during a mostly politically tense film.

Thomas Newman’s (Spectre, Skyfall) musical score also manages to create a great deal with very little. There are a few spots that feel slightly out of place to the time period and even the genre. But, for the most part, the spy mood is well established.

Even though some of the characters (based on actual people, it’s true) are not all that sympathetic (perhaps because they are based on real people), Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies still manages to span the gap between film and audience the way he used to.

Ammo Dump rating: 8 out of 10 hollow nickels

I’ll talk more about this film and others during my (every once in a while) radio show. Listen in on WJBC-AM1230 in Central Illinois. For the rest of the world, listen on WJBC.com or the “Rdio” app on your smart phone. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter: @ALphaEXray to find out when I’ll be on the air.

Bridge of Spies
Rated PG-13
Run time: 141 minutes

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