Bridge of Spies (2015)

brooke I’m trying to figure out how this movie got a Best Picture nomination

casey I’m a sucker for this kind of movie. Simmering tension, spies, Cold War setting, pro-civil liberties message, and Steven Spielberg? Umm yah I’m in.

brooke Well, and Tom Hanks can carry any movie anywhere he wants, but I was bored. Especially for the first half hour.

casey Whereas I liked the whole thing! Maybe not top ten of 2015, but I thought it was solid and thoughtful.

brooke Whatever you say, dear. I believe it’s time to summarize…
Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer living in New York during the Cold War. The government asks him to represent Soviet spy Rudolph Abel, which he does in spite of increasing harassment from fellow citizens. Around the same time, American pilot Gary Powers’ (Austin Stowell), spy plane crashes in Russian territory, and Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate an exchange–Abel for Powers.

casey Donovan finds himself caught in a web of bureaucracy as he tries to work with both the Soviets and their fledgling East German client state. The USSR wants Abel back, while the GDR wants to be treated as a legitimate nation, and it’s not always clear who Donovan is, or should be, negotiating with. The lack of trust extends even to the US government, which offers Donovan some support while, for political reasons, declining to officially acknowledge his. Thus, it often feels like Donovan is someone’s pawn, but exactly whose changes from scene to scene.
But let’s start from the beginning. You say you were bored by the first act, in which Donovan represents Abel in the US courts.

brooke I was. Other stories get peppered in that make little to no sense until much later in the film. It spends time on a lot of characters without showing who is actually important.
Donovan’s dialogue is only interesting because Hanks could act his way into or out of any room in this country.
Meanwhile, Abel is a bit of an odd duck, because even though the movie shows that he’s a spy, we don’t really get a sense of who he is, where he came from, etc.
The movie sort of jumps around until Donovan lands in Berlin over halfway through the film.

casey I disagree. I thought the first act was a solid courtroom drama. It establishes one of the movie’s themes, whether ideals matter in the face of an apparently existential threat. Donovan believes they do. He refuses to half-ass his defense of Abel in spite of pressure from co-workers, the CIA, and even the trial judge, but he’s no crusader, just a guy trying to do his job. Abel, meanwhile, is clearly guilty as charged, but he manages to earn Donovan’s respect by being straightforward and unflappable. Plus, he’s got a wonderfully dry sense of humor and has some of the movie’s best lines.
Once that theme and relationship are established, the second act asks what they mean in the murky world of international power politics, where even doing the right thing might lead to disaster.

brooke I definitely agree that it sets up the main theme, but I think it was clunky.
And yes, Abel’s dry sense of humor is pretty great even though they gave him the exact same punch line three times…
The Coens had better stuff than that in their pockets. Maybe they were saving it all up for Hail Caesar? (which I can’t wait for…)
But yes, the theme of principles really shines through the second half.

casey Once the setting moves to Berlin, I appreciated how the movie ratchets up the tension without resorting chase scenes, armed standoffs, thumping music, and the usual spy movie shenanigans. Most of the drama comes from our uncertainty about how to distinguish inane bureaucracy from actual skullduggery. As one character says, “How do you know the next move when you don’t even know what the game is?”
I also like how Spielberg conveys a sense of unease by filming many scenes with wide angle shots that distort the picture.

brooke There was a bit of an armed standoff, but I appreciated that the tension of the scene did not rely on the guns. It was just appropriate background for the scene.
How about that bridge?
You know, the one with all the spies on it?

casey The real star of the movie, some might say
What did you think about the finale on the titular bridge?

brooke I thought it was one of the better scenes
When the pressure is on, Donovan does the hard thing, as he does throughout the film: He stands firm.

file_609010_bridge-of-spies-trailer
brooke His goal is to do as much good as he can. Frankly, I thought the film was going to end with him returning to New York and people being jerks to him for the rest of his life, like in Trumbo
Trumbo and Donovan, both real men, faced similar problems but both firmly believed in the rights guaranteed by the Constitution
(and Trumbo was a far better movie if you ask me)

casey Clearly this kind of thing is on people’s minds, and the Cold War has proven a useful way to frame it. I could rant about the implications of ignoring civil liberties in a post 9/11 and Edward Snowden world but that’s also what movies like Bridge of Spies are trying to do on some level. Most importantly, it works as a movie, not just as agitprop.

brooke That’s fair. I suppose we could make the argument that history repeats itself and filmmakers are showing how to empathize with the other side. In Bridge of Spies, we feel a lot of empathy for Abel even though we know that he is guilty.
Of course, we’re also still supposed to hate East Germany (sorry, the German Democratic Republic) and the USSR, and the movie takes the time to show us how evil they are, torturing a prisoner in the USSR and shooting down people trying to climb the wall in the GDR…
I guess what I’m trying to say is that even in movies that are supposed to remind us that people all have value, there still has to be a bad guy

casey Yeah, the good guy here is an idealized America, even if we’re asked to lament how the real thing often falls short. Whether that ideal ever really existed…well, I’m skeptical. But it’s a nice fantasy, and for a movie like this I’ll buy in.

brooke Fair enough.
And even though I didn’t like the movie, it didn’t necessarily feel like a waste of time
I don’t desperately need my 2 hours 21 minutes back
I do wish it had been a little more like Jimmy Fallon’s renditions
But not every movie can be perfect.

casey Bridge of Spies: either not-terrible or possibly quite good! Either way, it’s out on Redbox soon, so give it a watch.

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