Bridge of Spies

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Bridge of Spies

Rated: PG-13 / Runtime: 2h 15m

An interesting story told at a third-grade level, Bridge of Spies’s well-made mediocrity does disservice to its material.

​Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), starring as boring insurance lawyer James Donovan, who gets strong-armed into defending a certainly guilty Soviet spy (a wonderfully deadpan Mark Rylance), remains the undisputed King of Everymen. Despite dialogue and direction urging him to go wide with his performance, Hanks brushes everything from playful to curmudgeonly, exhausted to stalwart in his duty, without batting an eye. His every emotional note, even (or especially) when he’s honking into a handkerchief, feels natural despite the saintly heroics ascribed to him.

It’s a Steven Spielberg film, and if nothing else, it means he knows how to work an audience. Spielberg remains unshakable in his abilities, even if his penchant for schmaltz has become an inescapable weakness in his later years. His best moments are when he finally lightens up from his dedication to regular men performing extraordinary tasks. Moments of the film are laugh-out-loud funny, even as the Coen Brothers’ and Matt Charman’s script alternates between sharply understated and dully repetitive. The set-up and punchline (usually delivered straight-faced by a weary Hanks or a stoic Rylance) consistently work, even with the corniest excuses. Spielberg is known for making corny work (the T-Rex pulling down the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner at the end of Jurassic Park), but this adage only holds for the light moments of Bridge of Spies.

The only really good, non-joking part of the film is the very opening segment, a wordless spy mini-procedural that contains the only tension of the film. Following Rylance’s painter/spy around, knowing something is amiss, knowing he’s being followed, culminating in a pursuit accelerating as the subway and obstructive subway crowds concurrently escalate. It’s a wonderful piece of low-key action building from the opening moments, but for a spy quote-unquote thriller (or even drama), there’s a surprising lack of tension, thrills, drama, or….well, ANYTHING we haven’t seen before a million times.

While the film often looks stunningly maintained, with each setting’s grime, clutter, or clinical pageantry coming across through the set design, many of longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski’s shots bash the viewer with the overwhelming soft glow of angelic backlighting. Heavenly auras surround innocents and good guys, blinding the viewer with visual broad strokes.

And the broad strokes don’t stop there. It’s a decent spy story told in a very obvious, easy, uninteresting way. From the repetitive, on-the-nose dialogue, to the jarring editing juxtaposition (the Pledge of Allegiance and a mushroom cloud: edgy), to the simple story notes, the film continues pouring water into the espionage bourbon. Musical cues soar when we need to remember which countries or locations are evil and when our hero triumphs. Thank God we have helpful musical stingers to supplement the dozens of location subtitles. Are there people that would watch this film that wouldn’t recognize the Supreme Court? How about understanding that if we see a screen-spanning German-language restaurant sign, we’re in Germany? Or that a hammer and sickle represent the USSR?

Donovan’s wife (Amy Ryan) is a shrill, selfish non-presence. A 1950s relic not so much underwritten as barely there at all. The entire family dynamic between Donovan, his wife, his Red-Scared son, and his featureless teenage daughter consists of a gross mixture of insincere nostalgia and sub-parody. They exist to nag and guilt Donovan about his duty, but because he’s the hero, he must soldier on.

The film never feels like there are any stakes. We know from the moment Donovan rebukes his CIA tail over lawyer-client privilege that this is the kind of movie where the unflappably staunch patriot stands in the face of wimpy adversity and overcomes. Apart from the opening chase, the film is fangless. A wonderful shot, full of potential, pays off an early warning against gangs roaming the streets of East Germany. Donovan approaches a street corner, unaware that a handful of teenage toughs await him around the turn. Are we going to see Tom Hanks get roughed up in the snow? No, he’s surrounded and trades his coat for directions. It’s anticlimactic enough to be played as a joke, which it’s not. That’d be a good description for a lot of this movie, actually.

Towards the end of the film, Donovan comments that it doesn’t matter what people think, and that you know what you do. Then we linger on him and have a little think about this. That could be an interesting point.

Cut to ten minutes of people (including his family and LITERALLY the same sour old lady that scowled at him earlier in the film) thinking about how great Donovan is and giving those dead-inside yogurt-commercial smiles thanks to a grateful government news release on television and in newspapers. The perception versus reality debate that goes along with every aspect of public service is undermined, just like every interesting potentiality in the film. There’s a fear of offense that keeps everything safe, unblemished, and bland.

Bridge of Spies is well-made mediocrity that wants to be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the Shawshank Redemption, TNT-on-a-lazy-afternoon crowd. Boring grandfathers everywhere will delight in the unflinching morality of loyal men knowing what is right and following their gut.

But there’s nothing said about anything, including morality, because there’s no torture, no implication of danger, no threat. POWs are sleep-deprived and denied cigarettes. Harrowing. Our biggest fear is that Tom Hanks may come down with the flu. Even the threat of nuclear holocaust is played as ironically as possible.

There’s never a feasible option for immorality, just people doing jobs, treating spies as middle managers. That could be interesting too, exploring the grey layers of ethics that deal with information on the surface but result in loss of life. But that’s not the kind of movie this is. This is a movie giving a safe, bloodless hero fantasy to insurance lawyers. It assumes the best in people, but tedious optimism only goes so far.

Jacob Oller is an Oklahoma City film critic and writer. Find more of his work at or

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