Going toward the New York Film Festival this year, Bridge of Spies was one of few films I was indifferent to seeing at the festival this year. Having disliked almost all of Steven Spielberg’s work up to this point, with the only exception being Duel, I thought there was no way that I would come out of the screening with a positive reaction. While Bridge of Spies still does showcase a handful of my key issues that I have with Spielberg, I surprisingly enjoyed the film since these recurring issues are fortunately not as unforgivably in-your-face as they have been in the past with Spielberg’s work.
Bridge of Spies follows James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an attorney that is called up by the CIA to help retrieve a captured pilot that is being held and tortured against his will in the Soviet Union. Spielberg focuses the majority of his attention in the first act around Donovan, as he takes on a case to defend KGB intelligence officer, Rudolf Abel, pro-bono. What stood out most about the film on first viewing was how precisely structured everything is from start to finish. Even though several of the subplots throughout the course of the film only seem to have been there for Spielberg to be able to pack his desired messages into the film, he never loses focus on what he is striving to do. For clocking in at almost two and half hours, Bridge of Spies, like every Spielberg picture, could have benefitted greatly from a more concise editor. There are a handful of scenes where you can truly feel the extensive runtime.
During the first act, Spielberg presents two completely separate narratives that eventually come together to set the film in motion. Once Spielberg finally finishes his everlasting period of exposition (the first act of the film), I found myself immersed in the whole story, especially when Donovan goes overseas to help coordinate a trade between the CIA and the KGB.
One of the most significant faults to Bridge of Spies lies primarily in the first act of the film. Representing a KGB officer does not bring a desirable attitude from the public that surrounds Donovan. When on the train going into work in the morning, Donovan is faced with dirty glances from all that surround him as people look up from their newspapers and see the man they were just reading about in front of their very own eyes. Spielberg prolongs this scene for way longer than it needed to go on for just so that he could do a different variation on the scene with a whole new context to it at the end of the film.
A problem that I have with almost all of Spielberg’s previous works is that he has consistently failed to grab my attention throughout the prolonged durations of his films. I always found myself as a complete outsider when viewing his work. Luckily, this is however not the case with Bridge of Spies. Spielberg does a surprisingly impressive job of grabbing our attention right off the bat with a briskly edited chase scene.
In Spielberg’s previous collaborations with Hanks, I have always found the performances from Hanks to always bog down the film due to how one-note they always came across. Here, Spielberg gives Hanks a lot more to work with, which allows Bridge of Spiesto blossom into something we have not quite seen from Spielberg before. The performance from Hanks feels like something out of an old Hollywood film, which suits this Cold War-set film perfectly.
It was of great surprise to see Spielberg use a score for once in a moderate fashion. Especially in his more commercial work, Spielberg bombards his audience with an interminable score that has consistently prevented me from being able to become immersed in the so-called spectacle of his work.
Despite some excessive sentimentality, the climax of the film on the bridge works to Spielberg’s advantage quite well. All of what he has been building up to for two hours has finally paid off in an incredibly satisfying matter. Unfortunately, the final act has an unfavorable amount of scenes that are just there to flesh out some of the unneeded moral dilemmas for Donovan.
When Hanks finally returns home at the end of the film, we are reminded of why Bridge of Spies picked up so much in the second act. All of the family dynamics with Donovan and his wife (Amy Ryan) and children were never fleshed out in a manner that made me engrossed in how they were coping with their husband/father defending a KGB officer. The angst that some of the people in their neighborhood show towards them is never effective in the way that Spielberg intended it to come across. The final moments of Bridge of Spies luckily do not focus on how Donovan is welcomed home by his family, while instead, Spielberg makes a statement on how the media’s projection of a man can change the way the public looks at a man who is just doing his job.