‘Bridge of Spies’ Gets the Job Done, But That’s About It (FILM REVIEW)


How do I judge a movie that has the pedigree of Bridge of Spies?

Bridge of Spies is a movie directed by one of the all-time great directors (Steven Spielberg), co-written by two of the all-time best screenwriters (Joel and Ethan Coen, working with Matt Charman) and starring one of the best actors of the modern era (Tom Hanks). It’s a roster that seems tailor made for the production of a high quality, awards caliber, cinematic endeavor, and on the one hand that’s precisely what we get.

On the other, given its incredible lineup, it’s a bit unremarkable at what it is. Inasmuch as it’s a high quality, awards caliber cinematic endeavor, it never exactly pushes the boundaries of expectations or delivers anything particularly groundbreaking to the form. It’s Oscar bait, pure and simple. And while it does happen to be Oscar bait of considerable merit, it manages to lack the sort of eminence one might expect given its pedigree.

To word it another way, if the greatest band in the world puts out their worst album, but that album is still better than most other albums being released by other bands, is it a bad album? Do you judge a work on its own merits, or does the artist bring with it a standard that a work necessarily must be held to and contrasted against? At what point is it not enough to simply meet expectations?

Bridge of Spies certainly did meet my expectations, but never did it exceed them. The Cold War thriller finds Hanks as attorney James B. Donovan, a lawyer caught in the unenviable position of having to defend a suspected Soviet Spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). His involvement with the case, which he takes due to his unquestioning belief that all defendants deserve a proper defense, leads to public disdain, death threats, and strain on his marriage. If that wasn’t bad enough, the C.I.A. drafts Donovan to assist in the negotiations of a prisoner exchange involving his client and a U.S. U-2 bomber pilot Francis G. Powers (Austin Stowell). Out of his element and in hostile territory, Donovan must find a way to bridge the gap between the two super powers and ensure that everyone makes it home safely.

It’s a tale of tension filled with great performances and snappy dialogue. Hanks certainly brings the thunder and reminds us all why we love him so. He’s the kind of movie star that doesn’t seem to exist in this day and age, whose charm oozes from every pore and whose skill is evident with every breath. Which is about what we expect from Hanks. As for Spielberg, it’s certainly his best film in the last decade although, aside from Lincoln, that’s not exactly saying much.

Which brings us back full circle to my conundrum. Yes, so that I’m very clear, Bridge of Spies is an excellent movie. It’s an extremely well-made, well-constructed, and well-acted piece of modern cinema that will, no doubt, earn praise and accolades. Deservedly so. Its message of diplomacy and communication feels particularly poignant in this age, where posturing and hardline approaches seem to be the name of the game.

But never does it feel lasting. There’s no sense of timelessness that the truly great films exude. It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone in 20 years watching this film, aside from perhaps a few graduate students in film schools, and even then I don’t imagine they’ll have much to say besides “eh, it’s not his best.” In the end, it’s just a movie—which normally I wouldn’t necessarily hold against it, but given the caliber of its pedigree, “just a movie” feels somewhat lacking.

And that’s probably the source of my critical theory dissonance. With names like Hanks, Spielberg, and Coen attached to this film, I automatically expect a work of remarkable value. For all its plusses, and there are many, it’s the weight of expectation that truly holds Bridge of Spies back. Maybe that’s my fault for anticipating so much from the film. But, then again, how could I not?

Bridge of Spies is now in theaters.

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