I recently watched the Steven Spielberg helmed Bridge of Spies , and while I found it enjoyable and historically interesting, it wasn’t quite the taut, dark spy film that could be found in other works of the genre. The film is, for the most part a historical drama regarding a relatively well known incident that took place in the early 60’s. Of course this was rather deep into the Cold War era, and this film sits firmly in the genre of cold war thriller, which tends to be a favorite of mine in film and literature, at least when done well. In Bridge of Spies, the film’s first 1/3 or so focuses on US Civilian Lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, in defending a Soviet Citizen, played by the often excellent Mark Rylance , accused of espionage. Public sentiment is greatly against the accused, given the Cold War tensions of the time, and members of Donovan’s own justice system seem rather non -plussed about assuming guilt and the requisite harsh punishment. Donovan’s character serves as a voice of “humanity” throughout the film, and is able to successfully argue for a prison term for the admittedly guilty, soviet spy. He is able to present a convincing argument that the spy may become useful as a bargaining tool if a high profile American were to be held prisoner by the soviets. At the same time as these proceedings are taking place, we are given some brief scenes of clandestine preparation by a select group of USAF pilots to engage in an espionage mission flying a U-2 plane over Soviet Territory. Soon after, one of the U-2 pilots , Gary Powers, is shot down and taken into Soviet Custody. The last 2/3 or so of the film involve Donovan’s efforts, as recruited by the Secret Services, to act as a negotiator in Berlin with the Soviets to engage in a prisoner/asset exchange of Gary Powers for the American held Mr. Abel. There is also a sub-plot involving an American student who is held by the East Germans whom that government desires to use as a bargaining tool to achieve a degree of recognition and symbolic independence from the Soviet Influence. There are some tense moments in the process, but ultimately, as is true to the historical record, Donovan is successful in his efforts and returns home with his reputation restored and an implied sense of accomplishment and confidence.
Overall, I found this film to be a solid work, but it had several missed opportunities for depth and complexity that I feel would have improved the overall product. The production was quite professional, and the scenes involving panning over the setting, both indoors and outdoors , gave me a detailed glimpse into where the lives of 1960’s New Yorkers and Berliners (east and west) were set. The set design and costuming were incredibly historically accurate, and in some ways, the pacing and cinematography of the film were reminiscent of both the film noir of the 40’s and 50’s, and the political thrillers that began emerging during the era that this film was set. Most of the camera angles were straightforward and traditional, however the set lighting, especially in the Berlin scenes, served to allude to a mood of intrigue and decay. The plot was relatively straightforwards, hence I never really felt deeply engrossed in the “spy” elements of the story, and as I was watching the film, I had somewhat of a difficult time engaging with the characters. Granted, the film was set to portray a historical event, but I think there are other films out there that have stayed true to the historical subject matter of origin while also adding more comprehensive level of depth and subject portrayal in their plots. A major complaint I have about this film is that some of the dialogue came off as stilted and overly scripted, especially regarding some of the characters whose native languages were not English. Excepting Mark Rylance’s character, who was a European living and later incarcerated in the US, the film would have been better served by subtitling the Russian and German speakers, or at least having a translator present in the scenes where they interact with Tom Hank’s character. My second major complaint in regards to acting is that the two most talented actors in the film, Rylance and Hanks, who have both shown depth and range in past roles, used rather one dimensional approaches in their roles, especially in regards to non-verbal expression. Both characters seemed to have the same (respective) worried look on their faces through large parts of the film, and after a while it became repetitive and somewhat flat to me. Overall, I enjoyed this film, and it was a pleasure to see the particular subject matter portrayed in cinematic form, but the movie was somewhat forgettable to me outside the historical interest angle. It would be a good film to show in history classrooms, but the spy and espionage genre has much better works of filmaking in it.