Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

“Bridge of Spies” is another admirable addition to a fantastic filmography

Official "Bridge of Spies" Facebook Page
(Official “Bridge of Spies” Facebook Page)

Spielberg haters can sit in the corner, because we all know they’re faking it.

One of the greatest filmmakers of our time, Spielberg’s gift lies in his ability to always display to the audience his exact intent, a talent that his detractors often mistake for lack of subtlety. When he wants to make the audience cry, they cry. When he wants to scare the audience, they grip their seats. When he wants to imbue his movie with the utmost joy, we smile rapturously. “Bridge of Spies” is a testament to the director’s supreme artistry.

Based on true events, “Bridge of Spies” is set during a moment in American history in which Cold War tensions made it seem like the apocalypse was just around the corner, a time in which it seemed that one itchy trigger finger could spell the doom of us all.

In a performance filled with enough moral uprightness and fatherly charm to make both Jimmy Stewart and Gregory Peck proud, Tom Hanks plays an insurance lawyer named James Donovan who gets roped in by the U.S. government to defend accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a superb, dignified, and genial performance from Mark Rylance).

The federal government want to prove that the American justice system works, though not so efficiently that Abel has a chance to walk free. What the Washington cronies don’t count on, though, is Donovan’s willingness to provide Abel with the defense he deserves, even at the cost of his public image and his family’s safety.

While Spielberg could have built a powerful courtroom drama out of this material, this conflict only comprises the first act. When the Soviet Union shoots down an American U-2 spy plane and captures an American soldier, Donovan is tasked with negotiations.

Complications arise when he discovers that a hapless U.S. student has also been imprisoned in Berlin. Donovan, with his staunch unwillingness to leave anyone behind, refuses to save one captive at the expense of another.

Most of the film’s action takes place behind closed doors. Spielberg derives tension from awkward negotiations and shaky deals. In that regard, “Bridge of Spies” acts a companion piece to “Lincoln,” in which characters must maneuver shady politicking in order to right moral wrongs.

Though Matt Charman and the Coen brothers’ script doesn’t bear the same firecracker dialogue of Tony Kushner’s “Lincoln” screenplay, “Bridge of Spies” still treats viewers to warmhearted humor in addition to the Coen’s absurd wit.

Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography lends “Bridge of Spies” a beautifully aged aesthetic. Grays and greens ooze throughout the frame, and a sparkle of film grain makes it look like snow continues to fall even when characters escape the wintry outdoors into the privacy of their houses. A harsh glare lights up everyone’s faces, highlighting each character’s moment of exhaustion and doubt.

The film’s production design also excels. Every room has its own personality, and the intricacy of their design all aid in the establishment of the scene’s tenor. Courtrooms display a rigid facade of normalcy, ready to shatter at any moment. Private chambers and embassies are stacked with clutter. A run-down, barely functional shack serves as a CIA safe house.

The film’s best scenes occur when Donovan talks with Abel in his sterile prison cell, and we bear witness to a Berlin Wall-defying bond between two men that hold deep convictions in spite of their opposing loyalties. A wealth of meaning is derived just from the way physical space presents itself to the audience.

In the wake of the CIA’s bone-chilling report on heinous torture techniques, the moral code that surrounds “Bridge of Spies” feels all-too relevant. While meditations on gray morality are often necessary, it feels refreshing to see a director take an implicit, hard-line stance against unethical or reprehensible tactics that attempt to justify themselves in the name of national security.

In this film, victory is not achieved through violence. Donovan accomplishes it through careful diplomacy and compassion. Wrought with idealism, “Bridge of Spies” a film whose principles feel necessary in a post-Abu Ghraib world.

In an America where we shut our eyes and clasp our ears as our government inflicts unrelenting misery on its citizens based on their library checkouts or because they hail from the Middle East, the fundamental rules that “Bridge of Spies” stands for makes me welcome it with open arms.

And even in spite of its political subtext, every facet of its filmmaking works on a visceral level.  If almost any other Hollywood director had made this film, it would be a career-best. For Steven Spielberg, it’s just another walk in the park. Sit back and watch the master at work.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected].

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