On the closing credits of the Coen Brothers’ 2010 hit western remake True Grit there was a telltale executive producer credit for one Steven Spielberg. Despite Oscar glory three years earlier for No Country For Old Men, it was this quiet accumulation of characters at the close of one of their most popularist movies that cemented their acceptance into the arms of Hollywood. Previously the Coens had always seems like outsiders, or underdogs. No longer.
Now, repaying the favour almost, they’re credited on a Steven Spielberg film, having given a polish to the script for Bridge Of Spies which is also attributed to Matt Charman (who, one feels, probably did most of the legwork here). But the promise of some of that Coens magic is never a sure thing. Remember Gambit? No? Good.
So how does Bridge Of Spies fare?
In truth this is probably the wrong angle from which to approach this film, which finds Spielberg keeping the engine running and little more. Based on true events, we’re taken back to 1957 and the Cold War is sending shivers down spines all across the good ol’ US of A. Ultimate everyman insurance lawyer James B Donovan (Tom Hanks, looking more and more like the autopilot from Airplane! with every film) is given the thankless task of representing a suspected Russian spy caught on American soil. Though rusty when it comes to working criminal cases, Donovan is a stickler for the constitution and he finds fault with the process being exacted here, feeling that his client, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, stealing the film), is getting a raw deal.
Though it may be a losing battle, he fights it anyway, because the cause is the thing y’see. Meanwhile at home his cookie-cutter family (led by Amy Ryan who has literally nothing to do) grow concerned that his connection to the suspected spy (who, as the blistering opening reveals, really is a spy) may put them all in harm’s way.
This is only really the set-up for what’s to come later. And the prospect of courtroom drama usually has me clambering for the nearest exit, but this is easily the most enjoyable part of this uneven film. Largely this is thanks to Rylance, who makes Abel one of the most cosily droll Russian spies in cinema history. His conversations with Hanks are very amusing, and it is perhaps here that the Coens’ additions suggest themselves the most.
But, that’s not all. With Donovan successfully managing to afford Abel a stay of execution, circumstances dramatically change. An American spy plane is shot down exactly where it shouldn’t be. Not only that but in East Berlin an American student is detained unlawfully. Donovan is drafted back into proceedings by the CIA, because, well, they know him, and suddenly he’s upgraded from lawyer to negotiator. Amy Ryan better leave the dinner in the oven. Donovan is dispatched to Berlin to get back the captured airman. And only the captured airman. But he has it in mind to get a 2-for-1.
This larger second part of the film offers its own interesting elements, and Spielberg paints the place and time with the kind of mawkish sobriety we’ve grown accustomed to from him. However, something strange happens to the film at this point. It lost me. Not in terms of plot. That’s kept simple for snoozy armchair viewing. But the dynamics of Germany at this time in history, specifically those occurring within Berlin, overshadow the comparatively sedate series of backroom chats we watch Hanks’ Donovan proceed through. They say there are two things that you don’t want to see how they’re made; laws and sausages. Maybe how-d’ya-do aw-shucks negotiations performed by a man with a runny nose ought to be added to the list.
It’s not that Bridge Of Spies is bad. For a sausage-y spy drama it’s rather good. It’s just that there’s a spikier, angrier, far more interesting Spielberg film about Berlin that just isn’t happening here. It’s the film viewed from the train carriage window as Donovan is ferried through the middle of it. Granted, said movie might not be any good, but it still starts to feel increasingly as though there’s juicier meat here. Not to labor an already exhausted metaphor, but it feels like we’re not getting as much pork as we’ve paid for.
True, Spielberg has other fish to fry. As he has done on several occasions before, he underscores an argument for the simple value of individual human lives, something which has preoccupied him for decades. On that front he makes his case as faithfully as you’d expect. But so much of this movie lacks the flare he’s known for. There’s no skip in its stride. The bridge finale is more procedural than suspenseful. Perhaps that’s to its credit. If you want carnage and/or pointless explosions there are the Bond or Mission: Impossible franchises. Still, something kinetic in the second half wouldn’t have gone amiss.
This is defiantly, frustratingly minor Spielberg, then. But that said, Bridge Of Spies has it’s charms. Rylance as mentioned is a major one, and its worth seeing just for him. Same goes for the movie’s flight-of-foot opening, which recalls a time when Speilberg was far more playful than he’s generally playing it here. And the downing of the pilot which triggers so much of the second half strongly suggests the director’s been having some chats with Alfonso Cuaron in the wake of Gravity. Overall, however, this is liable to become one of his more forgettable pictures; admirable in spirit but seemingly reticent to leave an impression. Much like Hanks in the film, actually. Still, it’s nowhere near the torture of The Terminal, we can be thankful for that.
Now, what are the Coens up to…?