Bridge of Spiesis a tale of two halves, the first better than the second, and neither very good. For director Steven Spielberg and leading man Tom Hanks, this should be a disappointment.
The problems are twofold: Pacing and story structure. At 142 minutes, Bridge of Spies is far too long; 20 minutes could and should have been excised to tell a crisper, more suspenseful story. As is, it’s a tedious watch, meandering and repeating the obvious that we already know, seemingly insistent on driving home points that we learned 15 minutes earlier.
Still, story structure is the bigger flaw. The script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen (that’s right — the Coen Bros.) is divided in half like a theatrical production. Beginning in 1957, the first and more interesting segment follows insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Hanks) as he defends accused Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) from charges of treason and espionage. Jim is an insurance counselor doing a defense attorney’s job, which makes no sense, but this is based on a true story, so we play along.
What’s interesting in this section is that Jim’s law partners (Alan Alda, John Rue), the CIA, FBI, the judge (Dakin Matthews) presiding over the case and — I kid you not — even Jim’s own wife Mary (Amy Ryan), daughters and son want it all to be for show and for Rudolf to not receive a fair trial. To the USA, Jim is trying to free a Communist spy caught in America. Jim, however, stands by his client’s constitutional rights and does his absolute best for the Russian. If this film had been released during the Cold War, Jim would without a doubt be the villain and dubbed a “Red sympathizer.” Because it’s screening roughly 25 years after the Cold War, Jim comes across as a lone bastion of justice facing the harsh invectives of protesters and naysayers made paranoid by the Red Scare. It’s an interesting dichotomy that should’ve been explored in greater detail.
Jim, of course, loses in court. Act two tells of his attempt to negotiate the exchange of Abel for an American fighter pilot (Austin Stowell) and an American student (Will Rogers). For this, Jim goes to East Berlin, catches a cold, and deals with a floundering German government trying to assert itself as a legit power apart from the Soviet regime. Here, Jim’s actions don’t have clear motivations and the bureaucracy he encounters is annoying, even boring, leading to a weak narrative that lacks tension.
Hanks does what he can to make the story palatable and engaging, but his charm and welcome comic relief can take the film only so far. The production design, costumes and cinematography are solid, and there certainly is a compelling story to tell, it just wasn’t told here well enough. For Spielberg, whose War Horse (2011) and Lincoln (2012) also felt too long, this is an unfriendly trend. Given that his next film, The BFG, due July 2016, is a family adventure and not a historical drama, one hopes it will not drag on endlessly.
Talk of Bridge of Spies as an Oscar contender should end right now. Yes, the Academy sometimes nominates the pedigree rather than the product, but the emotional investment which Spielberg usually generates so expertly is largely void here, and it’s hard to receive nominations if the audience isn’t emotionally stirred. Let’s chalk this one up as a misfire and eagerly look forward to what the great Hanks and Spielberg do next.