Bridge of Spies **

Cold War drama from Hollywood heavyweights drowns in its own tedium.

Is it worth $10? No

“Bridge of Spies” is a tale of two halves, the first better than the second, and neither very good. For director Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, this is a disappointment.

The problems are twofold: Pacing and story structure. At 142 minutes “Bridge of Spies” is far too long; 20 minutes could and should have been excised to tell a crisper, more suspenseful story. As is it’s a tedious watch, meandering and repeating the obvious that we already know, seemingly insistent on driving home points that we learned 15 minutes earlier.

Still, story structure is the bigger flaw. The script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen (that’s right – the Coen Bros.) is divided in half like a theatrical production. Beginning in 1957, the first and more interesting half follows insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Hanks) as he defends an accused Russian spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) from charges of treason and espionage. Jim is an insurance lawyer doing a defense attorney’s job, which makes no sense, but this is based on a true story, so we play along.

What’s interesting in this section is that Jim’s legal partners (Alan Alda and John Rue), the CIA, FBI, judge (Dakin Matthews) presiding over the case and – I kid you not – even Jim’s own wife (Amy Ryan), daughters and son want it all to be for show and for Abel to not receive a fair trial. To the USA, Jim is trying to free a Communist spy caught in America. Jim, however, stands by his client’s constitutional rights and does his absolute best for Abel. If this film were released during the Cold War, Jim would without a doubt be the villain and dubbed a “Red.” Because it’s released roughly 25 years after the Cold War, Jim comes across as a lone bastion of justice facing the harsh invectives of protesters and naysayers paranoid by the Red Scare. It’s an interesting dichotomy that the film should’ve explored in greater detail.

Jim of course loses in court, and act two tells of his attempt to negotiate the exchange of Abel for an American fighter pilot (Austin Stowell) and an American student (Will Rogers). For this Jim travels to East Berlin, catches a cold, and deals with a floundering German government trying to assert itself as a legit power apart from the Soviet regime. Here Jim’s actions don’t have clear motivations and the bureaucracy he encounters feels tedious, leading to a weak narrative that lacks tension. 

Hanks does what he can to make the story palatable and engaging, but his charm and welcome comic relief can only take the film so far. The production design, costumes and cinematography are solid, and there certainly is a compelling story here to tell, it just wasn’t told well. For Spielberg, whose “War Horse” (2011) and “Lincoln” (2012) also felt too long, this is an unfriendly trend. Given that his next film, entitled “The BFG” and due July 2016, is a family adventure and not a historical drama, one expects it will not drag on endlessly.

Talk of “Bridge of Spies” as an Oscar contender should end right now. Yes, the Academy sometimes nominates the pedigree rather than the product, but the emotional investment Spielberg is usually so expert at generating is largely void here, and it’s hard to receive nominations if the viewer isn’t emotionally stirred. Let’s chalk this one up as a misfire and eagerly look forward to what the great Hanks and Spielberg do next.

Did you know?
The film shot in many of the same locations at which events in the story actually took place.

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