Friday, November 27, 2015

Bridge of Spies: Phony Baloney

Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies.

The opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, where, in 1957, the slippery British-born Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) manages to elude the FBI for the last time before he’s caught, is both excitingly and wittily filmed. Rylance, a much-lauded stage and recently TV star (he played Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall) who hasn’t been tapped by the movies until now, turns the tension between Abel’s hyperawareness and his calm, almost languid air into a sort of music-hall routine with a whiff of melancholy. But as soon as Abel is sent to prison to await trial for espionage and James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is urged by his law firm to act as his defense attorney, the movie flattens out. How did Spielberg and the writers, Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman, manage to turn the fascinating, twisty story of Abel – the Cold War spy who ended up being traded to the Soviets for both the captured pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American economics student in Berlin arrested for suspicion of espionage – into a civics lesson? Somehow, instead of releasing the storytelling master in Spielberg – the director who could make the three-hour Munich so gripping – Bridge of Spies brings out his earnest, big-studio-era, socio-sentimental side. Janusz Kaminski’s period cinematography is gorgeous and vivifying, but the movie behind it is as glazed as Always, his 1989 remake of A Guy Named Joe, with Richard Dreyfuss in the Spencer Tracy part. And this time around he’s got Tom Hanks, who plays Jim Donovan as if he were Tracy.

Donovan is reluctant to take on Abel’s case, and his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) is unsettled by the idea, but the head of his firm (Alan Alda) persuades him that it would be a good (i.e., patriotic) idea, so he commits himself to the task. But he’s taken aback by the obvious bias of the judge (Dakin Matthews) and the assumption of everyone he encounters that it’s little more than a show trial. (Everyone, that is, except the public: his association with Abel turns him into a pariah.) Yet he continues to act as he believes any lawyer must act, fighting for his client, insisting on fair treatment for him and reeling when he doesn’t get it. The filmmakers set Donovan up as the last good man in an America poisoned by the Cold War, the personification of all the cardinal virtues that everyone around him has forgotten. He’s Gary Cooper in High Noon, striding out to meet his adversary alone on a deserted street because everyone else is too self-interested to support him; he’s Henry Fonda in Twelve Angry Men, standing unshaken on the side of reason when everyone else is too bitter or too biased or too lazy to think things through. And then, when he’s asked to negotiate the prisoner swap and the movie shifts to Berlin, Jim’s righteousness expands as he insists, counter to the instructions of his FBI handlers, that the innocent student who might otherwise rot in an East German prison be included in the trade.

Hanks can be a hell of an actor (Charlie Wilson’s War, Captain Phillips), but no actor can thrive when he has to stand for an idea rather than play a character, and Hanks has a weakness for that sort of thing. (Think of Philadelphia.) Moreover, he’s not generally at his best when he works with Spielberg, who likes to use him as a moral exemplar, the way writers and directors used to use Gregory Peck. Hanks gave an admirable performance in Saving Private Ryan; the problems in that film – its increasingly desperate attempt to dissolve the nihilism of the first half in a na├»ve notion of salvation in the second half – were neither the actor’s fault nor exacerbated by his presence. But in Catch Me If You Can, where he plays the obsessive-compulsive Federal agent who tracks down the young con man played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and in The Terminal, where he’s the saintly man without a country (and gives, I think, his worst performance), and again in Bridge of Spies, he’s not just an actor starring in a Spielberg picture; he’s an embodiment of the director’s worst moralistic impulses. Both Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal began as lightweight, imaginative comedies of the kind Alec Guinness used to star in for Ealing Studios in the fifties but somehow they got out of control, with extended running times and lachrymose, self-serious undercurrents that dragged the pictures down and hopelessly square performances by Hanks. Does Spielberg look at him and think, “That’s the man we all should aspire to be”? That’s an unfair burden for any actor to carry around, and Hanks takes it on like a sacred mission.

The supporting cast in Bridge of Spies doesn’t have much personality, and except for Rylance the better members of the ensemble (Alda, Ryan, Jesse Plemons as one of Powers’ Air Force buddies) don’t have much to do. And as good as he is, Rylance is finally undermined by the direction: Spielberg makes too much of his actorly cleverness, shooting him in close-ups that tend to standardize his quirks. The movie gets you through on filmmaking know-how; of the big fall releases that turned out to be disappointments, it’s easier to watch than either Steve Jobs or the dour, deflating Spectre. But Spectre’s monolithic villain, who’s supposed to represent all the evil in the history of the world, and the monolithic (and indecipherable) antihero of Steve Jobs, and Hanks’ Everyman-as-Superman in Bridge of Spies might all be assignments in the same misguided screenwriting class.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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