Friday, October 23, 2015

Film Review: Bridge of Spies

"Bridge of Spies"  *** (out of ****)

Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies" (2015) is two movies in one. One half of the movie is a commentary on American morality and our belief we have moral authority over the world and the importance of due process. The second half of the movie is rather conventional spy fluff.

If only "Bridge of Spies" would have focused on the issues in the first half I might have considered it one of the year's best films.

Walking into "Bridge of Spies" I wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I thought it was going to be an intense Cold War spy thriller and then we get this commentary on due process and civil liberties and American hypocrisy regarding these issues. For a while I thought to myself, Steven Spielberg is becoming the moral, liberal conscience of this country! But then "Bridge of Spies" backs away from this point and Mr. Spielberg goes back to the idea of Americanism prominent in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), which shows Americans are brave heroes that always do the right thing, which is what made the first half of this movie so remarkable to me. Mr. Spielberg was showing the dirt under the carpet.

Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an attorney that deals mostly with insurance claims. He is asked by the U.S. government to defend a man believed to be a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Initially Donovan is reluctant to take on the case. He does not want the bad press. He is worried about what the community and the nation will say about him for defending a Soviet spy in court. But, the U.S. government is determined to show the world in America everyone is entitled to due process. And so Donovan agrees as he sees this to be his patriotic duty.

Upon taking the case all of Donovan's fears have come true. People look at him with suspicion. Why defend a spy? A Soviet spy nonetheless. Everyone, the government and the public, believes the man is guilty and a trial is pointless but Donovan sees it as his duty to provide the best legal counsel he can. Slowly he begins to notice from the judge presiding over the case to the American public that no one wants to give this man a fair trial. The whole legal system is a farce. It is pretend. This is all being done so the public can see a trial was given, a defense was provided and Abel was found guilty. However Donovan learns the government never had a search warrant, the judge will not allow a continuance so Donovan may build a case, the government wants Donovan to revoke his attorney / client privilege and inform them of what Abel says.

This should generate with the American public. Our society has had to deal with these issues since September 11, 2001. Should those that were responsible for those attacks be given a trial? Many Americans felt they shouldn't. Should those in Guantanamo Bay be given a trial and for that matter, many there haven't even been charge with anything. Many Americans feel they are not entitled to a trial. Should the Boston bomber have been given a trial and any other individual responsible for such acts? Many Americans feel the answer is no. Society talks about innocent until proven guilty and due process but those are just words, right? There are limitations, right? Not all people are entitled to civil liberties, right? It is this asinine hypocrisy that Mr.Spielberg is pointing a finger at. Americans believe they are exceptional, Americans believe in their moral authority, but, you know what? Doing the right thing is a burden sometimes. It is too difficult. Why go to all that trouble? Lets just say and feel we are great and not live by our words. That is so much easier and then we can all have time to do nothing and watch television, okay?

You wouldn't expect a message like this from Steven Spielberg. Mr. Spielberg always seemed so safe to me politically. He made movies where the Nazis were the bad guys. That's not daring. But then Mr. Spielberg started taking more chances. He started making bold movies. "Munich" (2005) argued violence will only lead to more violence, as the Iraq war was being fought. Not to mention Jewish groups were angry with him for this message. "Lincoln" (2012) showed a dirty side to politics and how sometimes great men have to bend the rules to reach their goals. Now comes "Bridge of Spies" with its indictment against American hypocrisy on civil liberties.

But, Mr. Spielberg can't help himself and he reverts back to his old ways. This is when we enter the second half of the movie. A U.S. pilot (Austin Stowell), working as a spy for the C.I.A. is captured to sentenced to prison. The pilot was given orders to kill himself if he believed he would be captured when he did not do that the U.S. government would like to arrange an exchange between the pilot and Abel. Once again Donovan is brought into the circle and asked to negotiate the exchange.

Plot-wise this makes a lot of sense. The audience has seen Donovan argue on behalf of a Soviet spy for an hour. You can't leave the audience with that. You have to make some effort to show Donovan is an American. You must show him actively participating the defend an American solider to help balance his behavior and show the audience all Donovan cares about is doing the right thing.

Unfortunately this part of the movie is not as interesting as the first half. It goes into standard spy cliches and has less of a voice. What is "Bridge of Spies" telling us now? From this point forward there is nothing new and / or fresh "Bridge of Spies" has to add to this genre.

"Bridge of Spies" is a well made movie. Steven Spielberg knows his craft. Tom Hanks is a very good actor. He fleshes out Donovan and makes him a man the audience can respect and presents his emotions and logic in a realistic fashion. We would like to believe men like Donovan exist in today's world.

What is surprisingly missing is a overwhelming feeling of sentimentality. That is unusual for Mr. Spielberg. There is an attempt by the end of the movie but by that point it is too late. The audience may like the idea of the characters and what they present but emotionally I was never completely involved. I sat back and watched what was going on but didn't feel like an activate participant.

This may be explained by the fact Joel & Ethan Coen had a hand in the movie's screenplay. I don't normally warm up to any character in any of their movies. They are also not known for sentimentally in their movies. They have a very pessimistic view of society, which can be seen in any number of their movies. This creates an interesting clash of styles between the Coen Brothers and Spielberg.

Audiences should see "Bridge of Spies". I wouldn't be surprised if the movie earns several Academy Award nominations but "Bridge of Spies" is not Steven Spielberg at his best. It is a decent, well made movie with a very good performance given by Tom Hanks with a strong social conscience in the first half. But then "Bridge of Spies" falls into standard spy material, despite the fact it is based on real events.