Friday, October 16, 2015

Bridge Of Spies (2015)

Why Spielberg? I’ve been asked that before and I’ve wondered that before. As a graduate student in film I’ve seen great hostility expressed towards the most famous director in the history of cinema, and my enthusiasm for his work is something I’ve had to keep close to my chest in order to avoid being laughed out of academia. Yet I love Steven Spielberg’s movies and his latest, the Cold War mini-epic Bridge Of Spies, is no different.

This is a luminous cavalcade of brisk suited G-Men raiding rooms, espionage meetings in trashy motels, classrooms showing bombed out propoganda, the wilds of divided Berlin where insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks, playing his usual Magical White Man role) speeds around to negotiate the prisoner exchange of a captured soviet agent (Mark Rylance) with two imprisoned Americans, a crash-landed soldier and a detained academic. Spielberg’s immaculate craft and unparalleled knack for bringing out the ideas and essence of his material through shot composition, camera movement and the precise color-noir of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski is in full bloom here, though detractors will find much to detract, specifically Hanks’ shade-free characterization and Spielberg’s infusion of music after nearly an hour without it. Hey, I always liked Capra Corn, and Spielberg Corn is always brocaded with a tough-minded view of the world’s foibles and ironies.

What Hanks lacks in complexity Rylance fulfills in a quietly stunning performance as the dual spy and austere amateur painter Abel. During a tour de force opening, silent save for the horn honks and outside bustle of 50s Brooklyn, Abel is seen working diligently on a self-portrait, walking to the subway—hey, is that someone following him?—and picking up a dispatch in the park. By the time he utters his first line, “Visitors?”, at arresting officers, the question Why Spielberg has already been answered. Despite the hatred thrown his way by virtually the entire country, Donovan defends him and Spielberg consequently does too. “The human part, the only part worth knowing,” were the sign-off words for the great HBO series Oz and that dictum is the philosophy for both director and lead character. 

Abel is a spy for the other side, but he’s also a human being, and as in his problematic, lesser Abraham Lincoln movie Spielberg leapfrogs over history’s wrong side. Bridge Of Spies has the entertaining levity Spielberg denied himself in Lincoln, a failing because Spielberg works best when he allows himself humor (excepting A.I., his grand tragedy of pornographic aesthetics). Bridge includes the kind of solemn talky sequences that were perhaps too much employed in Lincoln—though Spielberg certainly makes talk cinematic, as Preminger did—but, as opposed to Lincoln, these moments are alleviated by glint and crackle, such as Jim’s almost screwball quest to find a man named Vogel while coming up short with German mothers almost Fassbinderish in their puff and heft. 

The screenplay, unlikely co-written by the Coen Brothers, stomps out any of their natural comedic flair like it was bugs in the carpet. I suspect the Coens did this themselves, working like a record producer to bring out the best that Spielberg is capable of. When, at the final swap on the titular snow swallowed bridge, Abel tells Jim that “This is your gift” and then repeats it, it’s the Coens using sentiment they would boot from their own films but in the Spielberg context it works as well as E.T.’s profoundly mundane advice to Drew Barrymore to “be good.”

E.T. is a good place to start when connecting Bridge Of Spies to the rest of the Spielberg canon. It is also the story of sending a marooned alien home, and though Spielberg would probably group this in with his capital-H History films (Amistad, Schindler’s List, Lincoln) it is an adventure story, a cloak and dagger Indiana Jones fable. Light and dark duel as they did in Spielberg’s “childish” entertainment (which is paradoxically his most mature work); the complex visual palette—dismissed as “mournful” by Armond White, who strangely accepted the oppressive drainage in Minority Report—makes color into a character, from the warm interiors of Jim’s home life and skeptical spouse (Amy Ryan, used in a way that’s progressively subtle) to the washed out Quintet winterscape of Berlin (which Donovan enters like Indy entered the Temple Of Doom) and the blue hued a.m. diners and bellicose top secret military hangers in between. 

He stages a plane crash that, while powerful, includes a brilliant visual joke that’s so gimcrack you might miss it. He is still playing with form and possibilities: a masterstroke of a cut takes us from the courtroom where an utterance of “all rise” sparks a swift transition to children in a classroom giving the pledge of allegiance. It’s the most purely audacious cinematic moment since Godard’s divided split screen in Goodbye To Language 3D. A dissolve between two faces vital to the narrative is held so the faces stare at us, and on a big screen and in the thrust of the story to follow that dual-headed composition issues a pictorial essay on fate that only movies can pull off.

A secret thread of the picture is the treatment, or rather non-treatment, of women. Secretaries close doors for big secret male meetings and the most resonant shot of a female is when we view one of Abel’s paintings as he’s led out of a cell, though Ryan’s wife seems to fight against the tide of the era, especially when she asserts herself, agreeing with a colleague’s warning of the “cost” of what to Donovan has become a mission. Spielberg is shy of women but he is also critical of the “man’s world” that leads to frightened children and forced suicidal practices. I’d rather a director be shy and smart in regards to women than moralizing about how they have to “clean themselves up” (it’s hard to domesticate Amy Schumer, but Apatow managed).

While Spielberg’s best handling of this kind of heightened airport novel was in the mighty Munich, he achieves a more affecting conclusion than that film. On the subway after having success in the Berlin trade-off, Donovan looks out the window to see kids jumping over a fence, instantly causing him to remember the murdered Germans trying to climb the dividing cement wall during his sojourn there. Spielberg holds on a shot of Hanks staring dumbfounded out the window, recalling the framing device of De Palma’s Casualties Of War where, also on a train, Michael J. Fox saw a vision that brought the dread and terror of overseas malfeasance to our “safe” shores. Bridge Of Spies is rich and wise, the work of a director gracefully entering his “Old Master” years. Like Abel’s work, it is a self-portrait of its creator and his engagement with history, humanity and his own elevated art.

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