‘Bridge of Spies’ Review | Exchange You Can Believe In

Sit down, kids, because Steven Spielberg has another history lesson for us. The sun will stream from the windows, the strength of the American dream will be tested, and Tom Hanks will look super, duper serious once again.

The topic this time is the Cold War, which Spielberg admittedly airballed the last time he tackled it in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In that film, the Soviets were telepathic alien hunters who sword-fought a greaser in the middle of a car chase. So just about anything would be an improvement, which is to say that Bridge of Spies is indeed a lot better than Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but not worth comparing to Lincoln or Saving Private Ryan

Bridge of Spies is a film of ideological debates and courtroom drama, in which most of the “action” is limited to glances over one’s shoulder, albeit usually quite furtively. It is a film in which men talk endlessly about important things and drink expensive booze in their offices in the middle of the day. It is a film with a lot on its mind. Too much. The whole thing ultimately collapses under the cumbersome weight of heavy-handed ideals. Bridge of Spies might have been great if it hadn’t seemed so convinced of its own greatness.

Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance attorney drafted by the American government into representing accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in 1957. The job is thankless, and maybe even pointless: Donovan will become a public pariah for defending an indefensible enemy of the state, and Abel will get convicted no matter what because everyone – except Donovan, of course – considers it their patriotic duty to compromise the trial and hang the defendant as quickly as possible.

So why does Donovan bother? Because America, that’s why. Donovan steadfastly commits to giving Abel a fair trial, because if Abel doesn’t get one, America will lose its soul. And he’s right of course but that’s not the sort of dramatic set-up that allows for much subtlety, no matter how hard Spielberg – in his defense – actually tries. The script for Bridge of Spies nobly strives to play down the sort of melodramatic grandstanding that this kind of civil rights story typically falls prey to, but disassembling one big finger-wagging speech into a series of smaller, disappointed verbal put downs doesn’t so much cure the disease as make its symptoms more manageable.

The Abel case alone would have been enough for practically any film, but history had other plans. Eventually the pilot of an American spy plane crash lands in enemy territory, and Donovan is approached to broker a prisoner exchange between Russia and The United States. This leads to even more talkative scenes where Donovan is the only person in the room, and apparently the whole world, who hasn’t let political double-speak and/or blind patriotism pervert his ideals. Whether or not he succeeds seems a little less important than whether or not the audience wipes away a single, solitary tear because of how inspired they are.  

Bridge of Spies looks great, and the actors are all working wonders with complex rhetoric and slippery subterfuge. Mark Rylance in particular steals the film as a spy whose grace under pressure gets downright unnerving. But while it is a suspenseful movie while you’re watching it, a few hours later all of these twists and turns evaporate and only the big picture remains. And the big picture is just a bit condescending. Tom Hanks is America and everyone else is un-American, except for the housewives, of course. But all the housewives do is look upon our hero with admiration, and the audience is obviously expected to follow suit. 

James Donovan has earned our admiration, granted, but Bridge of Spies doesn’t manipulate us nearly as well as its hero manipulates Russia and East Germany. We may have learned a great deal about what it means to be an American from Steven Spielberg’s latest history lesson, but that doesn’t mean that lesson came in the form of a great film.

Images via Walt Disney Studios

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.