Monday, January 18, 2016

I Spy

I don't normally drag my feet about seeing a new movie from director Steven Spielberg, but I only just now got around to his latest, Bridge of Spies. (The recent Oscar nomination for Best Picture was the nudge.) It's the story of events surrounding the famous U-2 incident of 1960, in which a captured Russian spy was traded for a captured American pilot. More specifically, it's the story of lawyer James Donovan, who negotiated the exchange.

The script for Bridge of Spies from an unlikely source: British playwright Matt Charman joined forces with the Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel. The unlikely part is that the Coens chose not to direct their own script -- though after the movie Unbroken, this is the second time in as many years that they've done so. Certainly, Bridge of Spies doesn't feel like a Coen Brothers movie when you watch it.

In fact, it feels very much like a Steven Spielberg movie. It's an expertly put together film. It's methodical enough to give actors room to perform, yet reasonably paced. The camera moves are noticeable when there's a point being made, and unobtrusive when called for. The environment of the late 1950s and early 60s is incredibly well realized, but not in a showy way. The bitterness of a German winter makes you feel more effectively cold while watching it than the far more self-important The Revenant.

But you kind of feel like Spielberg could have made this in his sleep. Not that it's sloppy by any means. It's just that you've seen him tackle "common man against the system," "period piece," "film set in Germany," -- all of it feels pretty familiar. And, of course, it's starring Spielberg's frequent on-screen collaborator, Tom Hanks. You feel the same thing from Hanks too. He gives exactly the right performance for this film: soft-spoken, determined, relatable... and you've basically seen it before.

Thus, it's the small differences in Bridge of Spies that really stand out. For example, there's the fact that you almost get two movies in one; the first half of the story is a "one noble man against the system" courtroom struggle (with clear allegories to modern imprisoned terrorist suspects), while the second half is the tale of an untrained "agent" being drawn into a web of espionage. There's a great supporting performance by Mark Rylance as Russian spy as Rudolf Adel, who out-Hankses Tom Hanks with unflappable cool and Everyman wit. There's an intriguing musical score by Thomas Newman -- here working with Spielberg for the first time, as John Williams was having health issues at the time which prevented him from scoring Spielberg's film as usual.

Really, I can't point to anything about Bridge of Spies that was bad. But it feels almost workmanlike for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks to produce something that's simply "good." The movie engages plenty of interest, but little emotion. It's a fine film, yet simultaneously I can't really see what made it worthy of a Best Picture nomination. It's a solid B, perhaps even a low B+... and yet it falls short of my top 10 list for the year. I can recommend it, and yet I feel like a few years from now, I probably won't even remember much about it.

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