Saturday, October 17, 2015

On the Big Screen: BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015)

Steven Spielberg now directs movies for old people. It was an overwhelmingly gray-haired crowd at the neighborhood art house where I saw his newest film -- and I'm not exactly young myself. You could believe that these people have grown old with Spielberg, and you could more easily believe that only they could have much interest in Bridge of Spies. It was a good-sized crowd of old people, but I don't know what the screenings look like at the malls where the kids go. Spielberg isn't the brand name he used to be. That's partly because Spielberg has strayed more often recently from special effects and pre-sold genre material. Bridge is another of his adult pictures, another attempt to reach beyond his supposed limitations. As if acknowledging a need for help in this venture, he reached out to the Coen brothers, of all people, to re-write Matt Charman's original script. They make an unlikely team: the arch manipulator of emotions and the brothers often accused of cold, contemptuously satiric superiority to their subjects. Then again, Spielberg took it upon himself to make a Stanley Kubrick movie once, so maybe he recognizes an affinity inside himself with the "cold" auteurs that others miss. I'm guessing that he called the Coens in to give the dialogue some period authenticity as well as a certain snap that the brothers alone, arguably, can supply. They were certainly a gift to Tom Hanks, and perhaps they owed something to him after putting him through The Ladykillers. Hanks has a field day here in a role that's half lawyer, half salesman, and his crafty glibness as James Donovan plays well off the laconic stoicism of Mark (Thomas Cromwell) Rylance as Rudolf Abel, the Soviet spy Donovan is recruited to defend in a U.S. court. Acting isn't the problem with Bridge of Spies; if it had been the two-hander it appeared to be initially everyone probably would have been better off. But whatever the Coens did to polish the script, they were apparently of no help with a story structured to subvert its intended moral.

The moral seems to be that every person counts. Donovan is reluctant to take on Abel's defense for any number of reasons, but once he accepts the task he goes beyond the call of duty -- by which I mean he gives Abel more of a defense than the government actually intended. A demonstration was intended to show that in the U.S. everyone gets a fair trial, but all that's really expected of Donovan is a "capable defense" that won't change the obvious outcome. The outcome should be obvious because there's no doubt that Abel was a spy, but Donovan takes his work seriously and looks for irregularities that might get Abel off, only to find that the courts aren't interested. Even after Donovan persuades the judge to spare Abel's life with the pragmatic, prophetic argument that he could be traded down the line for some captive American spy, he carries the appeals process all the way to the Supreme Court, losing his ultimate appeal by a 4-5 vote. For this, the film tells us, Donovan was vilified and threatened by a hysterical public. Spielberg almost certainly overdoes this, to the point of having someone fire shots through Donovan's window, frightening his children, when in fact Donovan was so far from vilified that in 1961 he became vice president of the New York Board of Education. Presumably Spielberg exaggerates Donovan's ordeal in order to make him an exceptional figure, a heroic exception to the era's Cold War hysteria but also an exception that in inverse fashion vindicates his country. As long as the exceptional man lives up to the principles that presumably justify the Cold War, even when the majority seems to fail, he still affirms Hollywood's version of American exceptionalism. Through Donovan Spielberg (and the Coens) can affirm American exceptionalism while maintaining an ambivalent attitude toward the Cold War. On the one hand, to get ahead of myself, Donovan witnesses the Soviet Bloc at its worst when people trying to jump the Berlin Wall are mowed down mercilessly. On the other, Bridge of Spies is determined not to make Rudolf Abel a villain. We're clearly meant to accept Donovan's apolitical assessment of Abel as a "good soldier" -- one who never says an ideological word in the entire picture -- over the bloodthirsty indignation of his fellow Americans. We're also meant to see Abel as a political if not moral equivalent of Francis Gary Powers, the downed U-2 spy pilot for whom he's eventually traded through Donovan's negotiations -- and Spielberg's attempts to illustrate that equivalence just about sink his movie.

Spielberg's attempt to make Powers (Austin Stowell) a character in the story is a classic case of too much and not enough. Abel may not have much of an internal life apart from his hobby of painting, but Rylance's mannered stoicism bring the character to life, while Powers is never more than a cipher. But once Donovan raises the possibility of trading Abel for a future captive American Spielberg introduces the cipher and keeps going back to him, developing the character not at all and killing much of the dramatic momentum the Hanks-Rylance team had built up. At his worst, he crosscuts between a Powers takeoff and Donovan arguing before the Supreme Court for no sensible reason. The inevitable destruction of Powers's plane and his narrow escape by parachute is spectacularly pointless; the plot would be served as well if the pilot's capture and trial were reported to our protagonist as a fait accompli. An interesting point is raised when Donovan observes that he, Abel and Powers are three of a kind, the most hated men in America -- Powers joining the club because he'd gone against orders and allowed himself to be captured and used in a presumed show trial -- but neither script nor Stowell do anything to make that observation meaningful.

Worse still, Spielberg compounds his error once Donovan goes to Berlin, ostensibly unofficial but at the government's behest, to negotiate the Abel-Powers exchange. In Berlin Spielberg introduces another major character, the American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who gets arrested in East Berlin for trying to smuggle his German girlfriend to the West before the Wall is finished. Learning of Pryor's plight, Donovan is determined to get him released along with Powers in return for Abel, without considering that the East Germans who hold Pryor have different priorities from their putative Soviet masters, who hold Powers. If anything by virtue of having a girlfriend in East Berlin Pryor is instantly a more interesting character than Powers, but he still isn't interesting enough to justify looking in on him, much less Powers, when we want to stick with Donovan. The movie tells us that these two matter, but fails to show it. Neither Powers nor Pryor is part of the real story, which is Donovan's often desperate, always cunning dealings with the Communists, but Spielberg thinks differently. They're his proof that every person counts, but at the same time they're exceptions in a way we've seen before in Spielberg's serious pictures. Because for Spielberg the exception is the essence, he can affirm human goodness in a Holocaust picture because one guy saved some Jews, and he can make Saving Private Ryan  a victory because a bunch of guys die to send Matt Damon home. I don't bring this up to denounce two of Spielberg's best pictures, but I'm pointing out why some people do denounce them and may also denounce Bridge of Spies. If I've correctly diagnosed a Spielberg Fallacy in all these films, I find it most glaring in Bridge because his superfluous preoccupation with Powers and Pryor, or else his (or the Coens') complacent failure to earn concern for them, mars the dramatic balance of this picture more severely.

That's a shame because Bridge sure is a lovely film to look at. It's another pictorial triumph for Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. Just about every frame here is a thing of beauty, for which production designer Adam Stockhausen deserves a fair share of credit. The film isn't quite so easy on the ear; while John Williams arguably hasn't contributed much to Spielberg's movies in quite a while, his absence for the sake of Star Wars is felt if only because Thomas Newman's score is banal rather than merely predictable. Overall, I'm tempted to credit the Coens with whatever dramatic energy or occasional wit the picture has, though they should also take the blame for including or failing to remove some corny bits. Was giving Abel "Would it help?" as a catchphrase whenever Donovan asks whether he worries about things their idea? What about that supposedly soul-stirring story Abel tells about a man getting beat up by partisans but earning their respect, that you know as soon as you hear it will payoff later in the picture, as it does when Abel comes to Donovan's aid in a standoff? I suppose the brothers couldn't rewrite every word, but surely they could have done more with this script, or else the dramatic structure determined by Spielberg was irreparably flawed. For all that, I can't help imagining that had they directed it Bridge of Spies might have been a less compassionate but better picture.

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Ouch!! Well Samuel I am glad to have an excellently-written review of the film to feature on my blog roll, but I do like the film substantially more and didnt have the issues you broach here. I gave it 4.5 of 5.0 myself. Great review, hope at some point to talk more.