********* 7 out of 10 *********
Director: Steven Spielberg
Actors: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance
Ah well, expectations! Sometimes we feel a bit of a let-down from even a good movie, when the expectations are set too high. But can you blame me for this one? A Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Hanks is kind of a dream for anyone who loves Hollywood. Two masters of their respective arts are combining to enrich your life with a piece of great story-telling. They have done it thrice already – Saving Private Ryan, Catch me if You Can, and The Terminal. So their fourth collaboration, Bridge of Spies, raised the expectations too high. Well, Bridge of Spies does not turn into the movie I was hoping it would be, which made me a little disappointed. But if we forget the Steven Spielberg – Tom Hanks angle for a moment, then Bridge of Spies is a good piece of cinema with an extraordinary tale from history which is worth knowing. Not the best of Spielberg’s works, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t worth watching!
Bridge of Spies begins with the capture of an alleged Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), on US soil during the Cold War. In keeping with the spirit of the Constitution, it is decided that Abel would be given a fair trial and so James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an accomplished insurance lawyer, is assigned the task to defend him. Donovan is hesitant at first, considering how it might taint his image in front of his fellow citizens, but decides to take up the case nonetheless, given his own idealistic principles. Donovan’s job isn’t made easy by the hostile environment in which he has to defend Abel, and things get more complicated when the Russians capture an American pilot on their soil. Donovan finds himself in the midst of a complicated negotiation between two distrusting Governments, getting more and more entrenched in a battle of politics.
It’s an incredible tale from history that Spielberg has gotten his hands on, definitely worthy of a movie adaptation. There are a lot of elements here – the beliefs of an idealistic lawyer, his love for his family, the political complexities that governed the era during the Cold War, and the manner in which humanity itself was taking a backseat. The manner though in which the screenplay by none other than the Coen brothers (Ethan & Joel) along with Matt Charman adapts this story feels more like a documentary than a theatrical film. It’s straightforward, a bit too predictable, and low on intensity in the initial periods. It takes a lot of time for the movie to actually notch up the drama, which is surprising in a Steven Spielberg movie.
Steven Spielberg, in his masterful manner, allows the human traits of his protagonist to shine. He does not make the movie about the Cold War or the warring Governments, but keeps it heavily focused on James Donovan – what he stands for, what he believes in, what moves him. In that manner, once again Spielberg manages to touch the heart of the audience in a subtle way. But there are a few elements missing here which do not let Bridge of Spies be rated alongside some of Spielberg’s best works. It is too slow to get off the blocks; it lacks an urgency in its pace for at least an hour of the movie which can disconnect you emotionally; its background score from Thomas Newman is absent in many scenes where we could have done with some musical tension, and in other places, lacks vibrancy. The movie is based around 1960, and the sets and art direction are very well done. Especially the look of East Berlin is captivating!
It is very rare that in a Tom Hanks movie, Tom Hanks is not the brightest spot. Such is the case with Bridge of Spies. The actor who steals the show is Mark Rylance playing the aged Russian spy. During the course of the movie, Donovan comes to like this Russian spy, and you would feel the same way, because Mark Rylance cuts the figure of a proud and brave soldier who will not let his dignity be taken away from him. His frail structure and old age, on the other hand, call out for your compassion. His lack of fear surprises Donovan, and it will surprise you too. At the same time, you can see warmth and kindness in his eyes. Everything about Mark Rylance is terrific in the movie, and for most of the scenes, he does overshadow Tom Hanks’ presence. That says a lot!
Take nothing away from Tom Hanks though; take nothing away from the amount of effort and hardwork he puts in his roles which make them seem so easy to us. He once more slips into the skin of his character, bringing out the idealism of James Donovan, interlacing it with the doubts and fears he has. There is one scene in which he is addressing the Supreme Court, trying to defend the rights of Able, where you see the magic of Tom Hanks and his voice come alive again. Playing Donovan’s wife is Amy Ryan who has a commanding presence in her limited role, though the same cannot be said about the actors playing the CIA operatives who could have been shown more in command.
In the list of Spielberg – Hanks movies, Bridge of Spies would stand behind the other three for me, but then it is a tough list to top. I come back once more to the word ‘expectations’, and if you remove that, then Bridge of Spies does have its moments to captivate you. Eh, but how do you omit ‘expectations’, right? They are bound to come up the next time Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks come together again, and hopefully, my expectations would be exceeded then!