Film Review: Bridge of Spies

by Chad Liffmann on October 16, 2015

Spielberg + Coens + Hanks = Better than your average storytelling.

The lawyer who became a negotiator. The negotiator who united three empires.

The lawyer who became a negotiator. The negotiator who united three empires.

Thomas Newman seems to be doing his best musical imitation of John Williams throughout the former’s original score for Bridge of Spies. The reason I started with this opinionated tidbit is because it’s probably the weakest part of the movie. The score isn’t among Newman’s finest (American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Finding Nemo) and it’s far from capturing the spirit of Williams’ finest (Star Wars, Munich, Lincoln, basically everything…ever). The music in Bridge of Spies is the weakest, though still serviceable, mixed result in a movie production full of interesting mixes. Bridge of Spies represents the first time the Coen brothers have written for Spielberg, the first time Spielberg has employed a composer other than Williams for a feature film in lord knows how long, and judging by the number of production companies listed in the beginning, probably the first time Spielberg has needed the aid of a half dozen independent companies to help a production out. Sure, it’s also the fourth collaboration between Spielberg and Hanks, so there’s that. However, point being that Bridge of Spies had a lot of award-winning talent working together, and the results are infectious, if not odd, but totally worth our while. Embracing the tonal patchwork that comes from great minds working together, Bridge of Spies is a tense, fascinating true story of courage during the Cold War.

Bridge of Spies stars Tom Hanks as James Donovan, an ethical Brooklyn lawyer tasked with acting as the defense attorney for a captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (the incredible stage actor, Mark Rylance) in 1957. Following closely to the historical events on which its based, Bridge of Spies depicts the high profile trial of Abel, through to the the high stakes prisoner exchange in 1962 where Donovan mediated the exchange of Abel for the return of a captured US U-2 Pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell).

Despite its serious subject matter, Bridge of Spies balances the drama with edge-of-your-seat thrills and splashes of classic Tom Hanks comedy. There’s really no one in the history of cinema that can deliver moral lessons in a manner that naturally removes all cheesy melodrama from the written words. Speaking of melodrama, it’s clear where in Bridge of Spies the Coen brothers’ writing was probably kept most intact and where Spielberg took things over with the third writer, newcomer Matt Charman. When characters are preaching about the goodwill of humankind against a soft gray backdrop, it all feels very Spielbergian. When we meet a cartoonish East German political leader sitting at his “throne” picking up the wrong phone when another one rings, it’s classic Coen brothers. But both styles bounce around each other nicely to create a well-rounded espionage thriller. One thing both the Coens and Spielberg have always executed well is control of their art direction and set design. The late 50s/early 60s New York and Berlin sets are incredible, as are the costumes and occasional CGI backgrounds.

Whether Bridge of Spies receives wide box office success and gets award consideration come Oscar time, or leaves theaters a moderate success and is soon relegated to the bottom half of Spielberg and Coen entries, it remains an above average piece of filmmaking, storytelling, and historical reenactments. It may not be Spielberg at the top of his game, nor the Coens showcasing their writing supremacy, nor Hanks blowing minds with an Captain Phillips-esque performance. Instead, what we see is an inspiring story in the capable hands of some of cinema’s finest players.


Bridge of Spies comes to Bay Area theaters October 16, 2015.

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