I need to start of by qualifying the rest of this post and say that I am a fan of what Steven Spielberg used to be, and an even bigger fan of both what Tom Hanks used to be and, on occasion, still is: powerhouses in the movie world. Before this film, watching a Spielberg-Hanks collaboration was cinema magic for me, specifically Catch Me if You Can and Saving Private Ryan (never saw The Terminal so I cannot say anything about it). When I first heard that they would be collaborating again, I was so happy that I might see a film as witty and charming as Catch Me if You can or as emotionally powerful as Saving Private Ryan, but then the trailers started appearing and my anticipating waned. I finally got around to seeing this film because it is Oscar season and I make a point to see every major film nominated for an Oscar. Oh how I wish I could get back the last two and a half hours.
As I sat through this film the same few thoughts kept: This is the most heavy-handed spy film I have ever seen, Spielberg’s direction feels old and tired, and I cannot believe this was nominated for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor when so many other better nominees were left in the cold.
The first two points sort of go hand-in-hand because it is without question that Spielberg’s old and tired directing style is what lead to the overt heavy-handedness of the movie, which is what ultimately made this movie so abysmally mediocre. The same directing cliches are used continuously throughout the movie that make it feel utterly stale, the use of a joke three times throughout a movie, using the same woman on the train to show the audience what people think of the main character at the start and end of the film, and over-the-top acting from the “villains” of the film to help us remember that they are villains. For instance, throughout the movie James Donovan (Tom Hanks) asks Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) if he is worried three separate times, and each time, without fail, Abel responds “would it help?” And, of course, the third time this conversation happens is when they are walking to the center of the bridge to make the exchange and they are discussing the possibility that Abel is killed once the soviets take him. I find it personally insulting that Spielberg would allow for something so obvious to occur in this film, and to know that the Coen Brothers have writing credits for this film just makes it worse.
As for the woman referenced above, Spielberg so blatantly uses her in this film to depict what the public thinks of Donovan that when she showed up for the second time at the end of the film, I could actually feel my eyes roll to the back of my head. I posted both images of her staring down Donovan just to prove how ridiculous this whole thing is. In both scenes both Hanks and the woman are shot from the exact same seats on the train and in both everyone on the train happens to be reading about Donovan’s latest adventure as he happens to be sitting there. The only thing that makes the second scene worse is that Donovan just finished having a conversation with Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) where he told Powers that he should not worry about what others think of him, as long as he knows the truth of what he did. You cannot have a character swear off the need for recognition for doing the right thing, then make that same character happy by giving him vindication in the form of approval from a character who previously scorned him. IT’S ABSOLUTE NONSENSE!
Next I just need to discuss some of the over-the-top characters that are meant to be villains. First, Abel’s fake family in Berlin.
These three individuals present themselves to Donovan as Abel’s wife, daughter, and his cousin. Donovan is brought to an office in the Russian Embassy in Berlin to speak to a negotiator for the prisoner exchange. Instead of finding the negotiator, he instead finds these three, claiming to be Abel’s family. God forbid the audience actually believe that Abel is related to these people, Spielberg has them give such an over-the-top performance, followed by this emotionless walk out of the office that the audience can now be reassured in their belief that these are just spies, and not Abel’s family. It’s a good thing that Spielberg did not allow for any mystery in this spy film, that would just be silly and absurd. Donovan was told he would be negotiating with Vogol, a german attorney and friend of the GDR’s Attorney General, but instead he first negotiates with Ivan Schischkin (Mikhail Gorevoy).
I will give Spielberg credit for at least hiring a Russian actor to play the Russian ambassador, but that is where my credit ends. Spielberg forces Gorevoy to give such an over-the-top performance that Schischkin comes off as untrustworthy and conniving from the first moment you see him. Again, this is a movie involving spies and the cold war, is there really no room for subtlety here? Can the audience really not be trusted to determine through the course of dialogue and events that someone is untrustworthy? And it is not even good direction becuase Schischkin ends up doing exactly what he promises and the facts presented at the end of the film inform the audience that Abel was returned home to be with his family, and not killed by the soviets. So it isn’t even proper direction to make Schischkin appear less than a man of his word. Did he try to negotiate his position? sure, but that was his god damn job, that was why he was there. Having said that, when we do meet Vogol (Sebastian Koch), he turns out to actually be a subtly portrayed character, which is ironic because he is the only one to actually trick Donovan and make him spend a night in the GDR prison. I will give all the credit for this subtlety to Koch who showed an equal measure of subtlety in his roles in The Lives of Others and Homeland. After Vogol, we are introduced to Harold Ott (Burghart Klaussner), the East German Attorney General.
First, Spielberg has the meeting with Ott placed at a giant empty conference room, as if he is some James Bond villain. Spoiler alert: he’s not. And once again, Spielberg has this poor guy yelling and banging the table one second, the fanciful answering the wrong phone the next (he has four or five phones on the table, because you can never have too many phones in a conference room). Honestly, don’t even know what to make of this character because he is on screen for no more than 5 minutes. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to portray him the way that he did, other than to spoon feed the audience the idea that Ott is a less composed and worse negotiator than Donovan.
This leads me to the final thought I had throughout this film: This film robbed other films of Oscar nominations in the best picture and best supporting actor categories. Not only should this film not be considered one of the best films of 2015, it shouldn’t even be considered one of the best Cold War films. Hanks literally made a better Cold War film previously, Charlie Wilson’s War, which isn’t great, but it’s certainly very good. To really see the greatness of what a Cold War film could be, I couldn’t recommend the movies The Lives of Others and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy any more highly. To really get a sense for what subtle acting and direction can do for a spy film, one need only compare Tinker Tailor to this film. In fact, if you have not yet seen Bridge of Spies, you can just skip it completely and go see these two movies instead. You’ll be all the better for it. As for Mark Rylance’s Oscar nomination, he did a fine job, I have no real complaints about his performance, considering what he was given to work with. However, it’s simply ridiculous to say that his performance was Oscar worthy when there were so many better performances from supporting actors this year, such as: Benicio Del Toro or Josh Brolin for Sicario, Samuel L. Jackson in Hateful Eight, or Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina. I found all these roles to be more difficult than the role of Rudolf Abel, and were all better executed by the above actors than by Mark Rylance.
As I said from the very beginning, this movie doesn’t upset me because it’s bad. It’s not a bad movie. It upsets me because, for the talent that you have in this film, it is so absolutely mediocre, yet garnering praise that could have been given to other, more worthy films. It literally angers me to know that the academy gave this film a very undeserving Best Picture nomination. And why? Because it’s Spielberg and it’s Hanks and it’s the Cold War, making it the perfect recipe for Oscar bait, regardless of whether it actually deserves such a distinguished nomination. Like I said, if you’re looking to watch a Cold War film, you can do so much better with The Lives of Others and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.