Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (2015).
Score: Technically impeccable, horribly written.
Bridge of Spies is loosely based on James B. Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) negotiation, at the height of the Cold War, of the release of US pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), shot down in USSR territory while taking pictures, in exchange for KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), incarcerated by the USA. The film follows Donovan’s defence of Abel in court, his plea for incarceration instead of death penalty and finally the exchange of prisoners at the Glienecke Bridge.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s: technical aspects are impressive. Artistic direction, costume, lighting, photography, editing. All of those are best of the best. But that’s not the only thing that makes a good movie.
The greatest flaw of Bridge of spies is the mischaracterisation of Donovan. Real life Donovan had been General Counsel of the Office of Strategic Services, a predecessor of CIA. He was highly prepared in intelligence and negotiations. He was not the goofball the movie makes him, a regular insurance lawyer who is given a case no one wants and takes it to himself to become a damn hero. Jim Donovan knew his shit, and I’m sure the negotiations were not like what we see in the movie: “We will trade one for one!”, “No! I want two for one!”, “No! One for one!”, “No! Two for one!”, “Damn, this man sure knows how to negotiate!” Tom Hanks’ acting technique is pretty much squinting, grimacing and trying to hide his top chin under the other two. Mark Rylance has Tom Hanks for breakfast every time they’re together in a scene. Apparently his funny accent is really accurate and his calmness contrasts Hanks’ quirky performance. Donovan’s negotiations are reduced to awkward sneezing, “I have a cold” and “you guys should find shorter names for your countries”. If you ask me, that gets you shot in the back and thrown into a ditch. He’s more annoying than me playing paragon Shepard, really.
The movie makes the mistake of trying to bring a black and white aesop from one of the darkest eras of recent history. Donovan didn’t bring those men home by being Lawful Stupid, don’t let them convince you of that. The truth is always much more complicated, and dirtier. The final scene made me squirm in my cinema chair: “These kids are jumping over a fence but they’re not going to be shot to death because we are in AMURICA!” If you’re writing about something as fucked up as the Cold War, you can’t pretend that if you’re faultless, fair and follow your ideals to the end everything will be all right and the good guys will win. It’s just not fair.