Tuesday, February 2, 2016

"Bridge of Spies": Criminally Underappreciated at the Box Office

Now Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Oscar Nominations: 
Best Picture 
Mark Rylance - Best Supporting Actor
Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, & Joel Coen - Best Original Screenplay
Best Production Design
Best Sound Mixing

I did not see Bridge of Spies in theaters, and judging by the box office returns, chances are neither did you.  And that’s a damn shame considering that this is Steven Spielberg’s best film as director since Saving Private Ryan.  Late career Spielberg is often criticized for being overly sentimental and placing emphasis on cheesy moments of catharsis, but Bridge of Spies is an incredible exercise in restraint that proves that Spielberg is still one of the best directors of American history, even if he hasn’t quite reached the heights of his early career that made him so beloved.

Set during the Cold War, our story follows James Donovan, a lawyer so idealistic and genuine that only Tom Hanks could make him believable on-screen, which he most admirably does.  Charged with defending a Russian spy (Mark Rylance) tried in American court, Donovan finds himself as one of the most hated men in America for simply doing his job.  He goes above and beyond expectations to the disturbance of his legal peers, which earns him notice by the U.S. government when the opportunity arises to exchange their Russian prisoner for a Russian-held American spy.  Donovan is sent to East Germany to negotiate the exchange when he discovers a U.S. civilian student is also being held prisoner, so he decides to attempt a trade for both the student and the spy against his government’s wishes.

With a script written by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman, Bridge of Spies carefully walks the line between absurdist observation and tense negotiation, and though I would never have thought the Coens to be a good match for Spielberg, I find myself surprised at how effective they work together.  Spielberg strikes the right balance so that the film never slips into outright comedy, yet the wit and irreverence that makes the Coens so entertaining manages to convey the intense gravity of Donovan’s negotiations.  Spielberg is a master of not only directing actors and finding the emotional touchstones of his scripts, but also of the technical aspects of filmmaking, whether it be choices in lighting or framing a shot or the attention to detail in set design and making what amounts to a film about conversations visually engaging.  And remarkably this film doesn’t play to sentimentality as much as it could, remaining hopeful about the ability of people to peacefully settle disputes without ignoring the fact that neither side perceives themselves as the villain.

If the film has one major flaw, it’s that the pacing feels somewhat askew.  The first act comprises of nearly the entire first half of the 140 minute film, setting up Donovan’s defense of his client as well as the hatred and disdain Donovan received from the American people as he performed his legal duty.  This never ceases to be compelling, and establishing Donovan as a pariah is critical to his character arc, but it feels like an odd allocation of comparative time when the focus of the film is primarily upon the tension of the exchange of prisoners, not Donovan’s uphill court battle that is ultimately a loss.

This is a minor quibble, though, and not one that should prevent you from seeing a great film from one of the greats of American cinema.  There’s a reason that Steven Spielberg is a household name, and while the past decade or so may have seen some more pedestrian fare from the esteemed director, Bridge of Spies is proof that he can still make a great movie when it counts.  This may have been a box office flop, but it deserves to live on among the many notable entries in Spielberg’s filmography.

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