Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” (2015)

Academy Award Wins: Best Supporting Actor

More so than any other historical era, World War II has sculpted the filmography of director Steven Spielberg.  Whether he’s examining the conflict directly in films like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) or SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), or the ensuing cultural fallout in MUNICH (2005) and even CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), this particular era courses through the DNA of a substantial portion of Spielberg’s twenty-seven theatrical features.  BRIDGE OF SPIES, released in the fall of 2015, follows in this tradition in its retelling of an American lawyer’s struggle to negotiate a trade of political prisoners in divided Berlin during the height of the Cold War.  While he didn’t conceive the idea for the film or author its screenplay, the real-life story of James Donovan has, in a sense, been with Spielberg for almost all of his life.  As a boy, his father, Arnold, had often regaled him with stories about his service overseas in Europe during the war, and one of those episodes had been glimpsing the actual wreckage of the U2 spy plane piloted by captured pilot Francis Gary Powers.  The prisoner exchange had been a mere footnote in a biography of President John F. Kennedy, but yet it was potent enough to stir the imagination of British playwright and screenwriter Matt Charman as the basis for a feature film adaptation.  After Charman had developed a few drafts at Dreamworks and attracted Spielberg’s interest as a directing vehicle, no less than the beloved writing/directing team of Joel & Ethan Coen came aboard to infuse the script with a concentrated dose of character.  This creative momentum translated to logistical momentum, and soon Spielberg and his co-producers Kristie Macosko Krueger and Marc Platt had worked out a $40 million production budget financed by Dreamworks, Twentieth Century Fox, and Participant Media. Arriving in theaters three years after his previous effort, LINCOLN, the impeccably-crafted BRIDGE OF SPIES marks a high watermark in Spielberg’s reverential chronicles of important events in America’s sociopolitical history.  

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In his fourth collaboration with Spielberg, Tom Hanks anchors the story as James Donovan, the idealistic and altruistic lawyer charged with defending a suspected Russian spy at a time when the tensions between the two countries have never been higher. BRIDGE OF SPIES sees Hanks working in full-on Jimmy Stewart mode, effortlessly putting midcentury American ideals like patriotism and religious faith into action even as he contends with the internal conflict of defending the most-hated man in the country. With his reputation stained by association, Donovan’s job nevertheless requires tremendous compassion for his charge, Rudolf Abel.  Played by Mark Rylance in a breakout, Oscar-winning performance, Abel doesn’t look the part of a Soviet spy– he presents himself as a quiet painter living out of a grungy Brooklyn studio, wryly musing on his imminent fate with a droll, unflappable quality that is arguably the film’s most visible evidence of Joel and Ethan Coen’s literary participation.  The first half of the film details Donovan’s defense of Abel and the ensuing strain it puts on both him and his family, anchored by his supportive yet strong-willed wife, Mary (Amy Ryan).  The more involved Donovan gets with the case, the more convinced he becomes of the constitutional righteousness of Abel’s defense, risking conflict with his own boss, Thomas Walters (Alan Alda), in his argument that the American justice system should assert its ethical superiority over the Soviet Union’s by trying him under the same God-given rights afforded of any naturalized citizen.  The second half of BRIDGE OF SPIES abruptly pivots to East Berlin in 1960, where a dashing American pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) has been taken prisoner after his top-secret U2 spy plane was shot down over Soviet airspace.  Having chickened out in his directive to commit suicide before capture, Powers represents an urgent intelligence risk and must be recovered. Donovan once again answers the call of duty, making a secret journey to divided Berlin in the hopes of negotiating a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers.  As he ventures further into this foreign world of cloak-and-dagger diplomacy, Donovan also angles for the release of a captured American exchange student named Frederic Pryor in addition to Powers.  It’s a huge risk that threatens the success of his original mission, but for Donovan, the risk is worth the reward if that means he can liberate as many Americans as he can from the grips of the Soviet Union.

Visually-speaking, BRIDGE OF SPIES plays like a convergence of the shadowy cinematography of MUNICH and the stately aesthetic of LINCOLN, resulting in a stylish, moody look consistent with Spielberg’s late-career work.  Familiar, well-established collaborators like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn share the credits roll with new creative partners like production designer Adam Stockhausen and composer Thomas Newman.  Kaminski is so entwined with Spielberg’s recent body of work that their individual aesthetics are nearly synonymous, and with BRIDGE OF SPIES, the celebrated cinematographer continues to deliver some of the most compelling images in modern studio filmmaking.  Shot on 35mm celluloid film, BRIDGE OF SPIES plays out within the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, taking on the desaturated, high-contrast look that we’ve come to expect from Spielberg’s social justice pictures.  A cold blue cast dominates the film’s color palette, bathing highlights and shadows in cobalt and cerulean hues.  Bursts of yellow and red complement this scheme, with the latter almost exclusively used to signify Soviet influence.  Spielberg and Kaminski adopt a classical approach to their camerawork and lighting setups, reinforcing their stately tone with fluid, elegant movements and a theatrical luminescence marked by the pair’s signature lens flares and blooming practicals.  Editor Michael Kahn, one of Spielberg’s longest-serving collaborators, has a gift for creating powerful, affecting edits that don’t call attention to themselves.  BRIDGE OF SPIES is consistent with this established approach, putting an emphasis on seamless transitions that hinge on the shared elements of any two adjacent scenes to keep the pace brisk and propulsive.  The aforementioned new collaborator — Stockhausen and Newman — inject fresh blood into the proceedings with their efforts, with Stockhausen striking nary a false note in his impeccable period reconstruction of postwar Berlin and Newman further asserting his unique musical voice with a stately score comprised of swelling strings, a male choir, and his signature arrangement of light piano chords that sound as ii they were hanging in the air or falling softly to the ground like snow.  Newman’s participation is particularly noteworthy because of Spielberg’s long and storied partnership with John Williams, who had to break a successive string of collaborations stretching back to 1985’s A COLOR PURPLE due to a minor health issue.  The challenge Newman faced was understandably daunting– how could anyone ever hope to deliver a suite of cues that lived up that kind of legacy?  Thankfully, this proved not to be a problem; Newman was sought out by Spielberg precisely because of his own artistic character, and was encouraged to follow his own inspiration and tastes without regard for Williams’ influence.  The result is an atmospheric and reverential score that nonetheless favors a subdued approach, perhaps out of respectful deference to Williams’ legacy.  

As mentioned before, BRIDGE OF SPIES follows in the tradition of Spielberg’s previous social justice pictures like SCHINDLER’S LIST, AMISTAD (1997), or LINCOLN in its depiction of the protagonist’s righteous quest to deliver a subset of people from persecution.  Here, that subset consists of prisoners of war– military and civilian alike.  The fragile peace that emerged out of the devastation of World War II resulted in the proliferation of spycraft between the USA and the USSR.  The Berlin Wall served as something of a flashpoint in this regard– a literal embodiment of the divide between two starkly different world views.  As one of the few capable of traversing the Wall freely, James is duty-bound to help those who find themselves trapped on the wrong side of it.  His righteousness in this regard drives him to push for the release of an additional prisoner beyond Powers (the aforementioned Pryor)– even when it angers his superiors and risks the success of the entire mission.  He doesn’t care about political expediency or “the optics”; he cares only about the souls he can deliver to safety, and delivering as many souls as he can.  Spielberg further alludes to this quality of Donovan’s during the epilogue, superimposing text that briefly details a future mission to Cuba where he arranged for the freedom of over 9000 souls.  BRIDGE OF SPIES possesses several additional qualities consistent with Spielberg’s artistic character, with the subplot about the U2 spy-plane reinforcing his cinematic fascination with flight and aviation in the detail he lavishes upon the plane’s shape, function, and ultimate destruction thousands of feet up in the air.  Family and the complex nature of domestic relationships, a staple of Spielberg’s signature since at least JAWS (1975) if not earlier, also plays a prominent part in BRIDGE OF SPIES’ narrative, complicating Donovan’s efforts by positioning the sentiments of his own family in quietly contention to them.  His kids, who understandably possess a more simplistic view of US/USSR relations (“us good, them bad”), regard his attempts to spare a Soviet spy the death penalty with wariness if not outright hostility.  Donovan’s attempts to negotiate the freedom of a downed Air Force pilot, then, becomes a personal quest for redemption in the eyes of his children.  

Spielberg has crafted BRIDGE OF SPIES with a profound earnestness that is characteristic of his prior work– and decidedly out of fashion with contemporary filmmaking.  This only makes Spielberg’s earnestness more prominent and visible.  Critics may dismiss his formalistic reverence as “outdated”, but in so doing they betray their confusion of “timeliness” for “timelessness”.  Yes, Spielberg’s saccharine sentimentality might seem out of step with our cynical age, but that’s only because he’s more interested in creating work that resounds through all ages.  Thankfully, most critics were as reverential of Spielberg as the filmmaker was of his material, empowering BRIDGE OF SPIES with near-universal acclaim.  Audiences followed suit, driving the film to $165 million in worldwide box office receipts.  As the latest work from an elder statesman of American cinema, BRIDGE OF SPIES’ high profile at the Academy Awards was a foregone conclusion, earning nominations for its score, production design, sound mix, original screenplay, as well as the coveted Best Picture category and an actual win for Rylance’s performance.  While it may not have reached the monumental heights enjoyed by Spielberg’s previous social justice pictures, BRIDGE OF SPIES proudly follows in their footsteps while carving out a new niche of twentieth century history for the venerated filmmaker to explore.  

BRIDGE OF SPIES is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Disney.

Credits:

Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krueger, Marc Platt

Written by: Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen

Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski

Production Designer: Adam Stockhausen

Edited by: Michael Kahn

Music by: Thomas Newman