Sunday, November 29, 2015

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies is a film out of time.  It's the type of production that looks and feels like it was crafted long ago and only recently re-mastered to highlight its glossy production values.  While it’s not really an instant classic, it’s also hard to deny that it feels a bit like one because of these things.  It’s a beautifully shot, lovingly paced adult drama that’s somehow out of step with the current cinematic moment.  In a time when we’ve become a little too accustomed to our “serious” movies leaning heavily on social justice biopics and effects-laden war stories,  Bridge of Spies is a quiet affair that emphasizes conversation, ethical complications, and rounded, messy human beings who don’t simply stand in as symbols of larger systems.    This is strange, perhaps, because of course: that’s exactly what the characters in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War film kinda actually do at some basic level.   It’s not that Bridge isn’t that movie – it’s the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) and Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) the Soviet spy he’s assigned to give a fair trial to --  it’s just that Spielberg manages to complicate that narrative, split the film’s focus, and transport the viewer through a distinct sense of place and time.

As we follow Donovan from his sleepy American town to a divided Berlin, Spielberg peppers the film with details that work to shape our sense of difference and doubt.  It's a setup we learn to make note of while watching the near microscopic exchange of information Abel participates in, folding and unfolding small strips of paper designed to fit into false coins.  All of this is a reminder of Spielberg's superior skills in cinematic production, and it's hard to argue with Bridge of Spies while you're watching it: on a shot by shot, scene by scene level it's story spun by a master.  As you watch and listen, you feel comfortable, sure of its direction, safe in its roiling political anxieties.  It is a serious film, but not one that wants to brand you with the emotional resonance of its capital 'S'.

This is, perhaps, thanks to the screenwriting presence of Joel and Ethan Coen, who give us the words that allow Donovan to walk up to trouble while maintaining that Jimmy Stewart gleam in his eye.  While no one would mistake Spies for a comedy, there's a matter of factness to much of what Donovan says and - especially - the voices given to the German and Soviet parties he negotiates with that seems to both embrace and wink at the cliches of such situation.  The Coens can recognize the tropes of what's barely a genre, and they play with and push against those moments in equal measure. It is perhaps this that allows the situation as seen through Donovan to never quite reach the point of feeling especially stilted, cheesy, or - heaven forbid - bland.  Instead, we have the rare "serious" Oscar bait film that also feels aware of its potential for failure and of its general lack of ingenuity. There's no doubt that Bridge of Spies is less a marker of evolution than of a comfortable niche for Spielberg.  He's not - to employ another cliche - reinventing the wheel.  He's just making a solid, extremely reliable version of it.

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