'Bridge Of Spies' Reduces A Murky Gray World To Black And White [NYFF Review]

In Bridge of SpiesSteven Spielberg's new Cold War drama, Tom Hanks plays an upstanding American civilian defending a Soviet spy caught on American soil. At a time when even being suspected of having Communist sympathies could ruin one's personal and professional life, his assignment is an unsavory, even dangerous one, and there would be good reason for him to feel conflicted about doing his job.

The film doesn't really explore that ambivalence, though. Bridge of Spies is more interested in telling a tale of crystal-clear heroism, which would be fine if it weren't so disinterested in digging into the murky atmosphere surrounding it. Instead it feels disappointingly thin, even as it does a great job of demonstrating that James B. Donovan was a pretty swell guy.

It's the year 1957, and the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. are locked in the Cold War. In this tense atmosphere, American agents capture Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), who's been posing as an artist in Brooklyn. The U.S. realizes it's important to at least give off the appearance a fair trial, so they hire a former criminal lawyer and current insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks). Donovan, however, isn't interested in simply making it look like Abel got a fair trial. If he's going to take the case, he's going to do his absolute best, and he isn't willing to let rules like the Fourth Amendment or attorney-client privilege slide just because everyone else is.

Donovan is successful in sparing Abel from the death sentence, at least. That turns out to be a very convenient thing when the Soviets catch their own American spy, a young pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) whose U-2 plane was shot down as he was taking photographs. The CIA taps Donovan to negotiate an exchange, Abel for Powers, in East Berlin. So he spends several days trudging through snow-covered destruction, shuttling between East German authorities and Soviet ones, to broker a deal.

The original title for Bridge of Spies was St. James Place, and it's at least as apt as the one they ended up with. Captain America and Superman are good people. James B. Donovan, as portrayed in Bridge of Spies, is a saint. He's a beacon of unwavering moral sanity in a world infected with paranoia, prejudice, and cowardice. And the moral thing, in Bridge of Spies, is doing one's job and doing it well, even at the risk of one's own life. Donovan's argument in front of the Supreme Court is that Abel is just doing his job by refusing to cooperate with the U.S. government, and his own defense when people criticize him for representing a spy is that he's just doing his job by giving Abel his best.

Certainly, Donovan's insistence that even Abel, the most hated man in America, deserves due process is laudable. So is his refusal to half-ass even the most unpleasant of assignments. But Bridge of Spies treats Donovan with such reverence that it keeps him at arm's length. At one point, an anonymous person fires bullets into Donovan's home, narrowly missing his teenage daughter. When a man sees that his work, however high-minded, is putting his family at fatal risk, it should shake him to his core. In Bridge of Spies, it upsets him for an evening. By the next scene, he's barreling forward as if nothing has happened.

The part of Bridge of Spies that really strikes a sour note, however, is the film's portrayal of German and Soviet prisons versus American ones. Powers' captors torment him by depriving him of sleep, messing with his mind, and drenching him with water, all in an effort to make him break. Another American, Pryor (Will Rogers), is detained without trial in a German prison, where it's so cold we can see his breath. Abel, in contrast, is kept in relative comfort in the States. He's allowed a cigarettes and art supplies, and enjoys listening to classical music on the radio with his lawyer.

Maybe the U.S. government really was super sweet to Abel during the Cold War. I don't claim to know. But Bridge of Spies is being released in 2015, well after we've become aware of our own government's treatment of prisoners (American and otherwise), and use of torture in the War on Terror. In this day and age, to suggest that the Americans behaved with the utmost propriety while its enemies subjected its captives to torture feels disingenuous, if not willfully dishonest. It's hard not to suspect we're seeing a wrong that's been sanded down and coated in sugar to make an uncomplicated tale of heroism easier to swallow.

There's pleasure in watching Donovan's wheelings and dealings because Hanks is, as ever, immensely charismatic. Donovan's friendly, unassuming demeanor makes him easy to underestimate, which only seems to make his opponents angrier when they discover how relentlessly stubborn can be. They (and I'm including the CIA, the KGB, and the German government here) fancy themselves powerful people, and yet they can't stop Donovan from cornering them in their own cars or calling their bluffs. Hanks is well matched by Rylance, who does fine, subtle work as Abel. He also gets the film's best running joke. Whenever Donovan asks Abel if he's worried about his fate, Abel dryly responds, "Would it help?"

As a whole, though, Bridge of Spies isn't nearly as appealing as its stars. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski borrow heavily from the visual language of paranoid thrillers, but all the darting shadows and Dutch angles in the world can't bring actual thrills to what is essentially a long series of conversations. And fairly direct conversations, at that – there are no shocking secrets or psychological head games here, just professional people arguing about other people's lives. There's nothing wrong with a feel-good movie about a totally decent guy in the midst of a mad world. But by refusing to engage with the confusion and ambiguity surrounding Donovan, Spielberg robs Donovan's story of its power.