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Bridge of Spies – Movie Review

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Bridge of Spies – Movie Review

Rating: A- (Great)

Steven Spielberg has successfully leaped between fun escapist entertainment and historic dramas over the years and Bridge of Spies manages to offer a welcome mixture of these two sensibilities. The subject matter is hardly light as it mainly tackles the careful coordination and planning that went into trading prisoners during the height of the Cold War. Yet working with a screenplay co-written by Ethan and Joel Coen, Spielberg is able to make it a breezy and surprisingly fast-paced two hours and twenty minutes. Spielberg’s previous film Lincoln, while well-made, felt a lot like a history lesson with his more scaled back direction serving as one of its weaknesses. Spielberg utilises more of his style in Bridge of Spies, giving us yet another strong picture to stand alongside the vast majority of his great films.

When Spielberg tackles a historical period, he is able to immediately time travel the audience back to that era. The thrilling opening sequence is done with no music and no dialogue and yet perfectly shows the paranoia prevalent in the Cold War. The filmmaker takes a lot of inspiration from movies of the 1960s, right down to how the real-life people are portrayed. Matt Charman and the Coens’ screenplay contains a snappiness in the dialogue, even as back door dealings are taking place in order to make the prisoner exchange. The central figure James Donovan is the good lawyer willing to give everybody a fair representation, but the struggle to maintain his family life is effectively portrayed. It’s the usual Spielberg father figure with his head stuck in his work at the expense of his wife and children. This film, however, is one of a small number of Spielberg films that looks at the father’s point-of-view and sees why his workaholic personality is important in this case. Tom Hanks doesn’t rely on his movie star charm here, instead playing a real individual and the decision to give Donovan a cold through a good portion of the runtime is key to showing his vulnerability in this situation and the danger he finds himself while in the Soviet Union.

Like the main protagonist, Steven Spielberg is also even-handed in his portrayal of both sides. Neither side is portrayed as necessarily the “villain”, but rather a group scared by who they saw as the enemy. With the heavy fear and paranoia among Soviets and Americans during the Cold War, the animosity is historically accurate. Many of the characters have hidden layers and ulterior motives. One sequence in which an American prisoner is repeatedly tortured for information works, because the Soviets genuinely believe he has the information and with the evidence on hand, it’s easy to see why they would make that assumption. The Coens add moments of levity into the script that have their fingerprints all over them and Spielberg, who is a very different director than the Coens, understands the timing of these humourous exchanges between Donovan and the men he’s dealing with. He is basically at opposition with everyone, but he handles them with subtle wit, rather than abrasiveness and that’s likely why we’re mostly on his side.

It’s almost redundant at this point to praise a Spielberg film for the production elements and technical aspects. Janusz Kaminski knows how to use lighting with he and Spielberg having worked so closely in the past twenty-two years, that they could almost read each other’s minds. With John Williams occupied returning to a galaxy far, far away, Thomas Newman serves as his substitute on Bridge of Spies. However, Spielberg makes a curious and successful choice to keep the film mostly devoid of music in the first act. When the score finally does play, it’s subtly integrated with Newman increasing its visibility as the film goes on. At times, it appears like Newman is aping Williams’s style and at other points, we hear those recognisable melodies so characteristic of his other work. It’s a fascinating case of a composer finding himself having to work with a filmmaker so used to collaborating with another maestro and being used to his familiar beats.

Bridge of Spies continues to show that Steven Spielberg can be trusted with almost any premise handed to him. It’s unquestionably his film and yet here we have a case of him working seamlessly with two other filmmakers with a style very far apart from his. With Ethan and Joel Coen on hand to work on the screenplay, the script is able to be a smart and surprisingly funny script that doesn’t make light of the paranoia of the Cold War, yet still manages to make humourous observations about the oddities of some of the Soviet procedures. Even Spielberg’s production team shares the Coen’s sly sense of humour by including a cinema marquee advertising the Cold War comedy One, Two, Three and the Blacklist-breaking epic Spartacus. It’s that playfulness alongside the serious subject matter that makes Bridge of Spies not become a stodgy period piece, but rather the sort of entertaining crowd-pleaser that Steven Spielberg does exceptionally well.


Stefan Ellison
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The Scene