Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” much like its misunderstood litigator, is a film that plays the long game. This complex Cold War drama soaked in shadows, blues, greys and furrowed brows, is a slow burn that challenges the audience to trust where it’s going.
In this fictional rendering of how a Brooklyn insurance lawyer ended up negotiating a high-stakes prisoner exchange at the height of the Cold War, Spielberg and writers Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen toss details at you, shake them all around and piece them back together in the third act, when the form of the puzzle starts to take shape. Only then can you begin to fully appreciate just how lean and purposeful every moment is.
Suddenly that seemingly random conversation about clients and incidents from the first act isn’t an outlier after all — it means everything. As a first time viewing experience, it’s like not realizing you’ve been playing a game of chess until you’ve already lost.
That’s all to say that “Bridge of Spies,” which waxes poetic — and occasionally cynically — on patriotism, honor, and duty, echoes in your mind long after the credits roll and begs for a second viewing.
On the page, “Bridge of Spies” is the story of everyman James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer and family man who takes on the thankless task of representing Soviet Agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in a trial, only to then be called on to negotiate his exchange for a detained US soldier on behalf of the CIA. But that’s just scratching the surface of this very thoughtful meditation on doing the right thing — embodied in the burgeoning friendship between Abel and Donovan.
Donovan fights for Abel despite the scorn of the public, the indifference of the legal system and the danger to his family. When he goes to Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for a detained U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), Donovan decides, against the wishes of the US, to try to tack on the release of another imprisoned American as well.
This all makes Donovan sound like a martyr. The film fights against that cozy idea, though. Donovan is not sentimentalized or propped up in an unbelievable way. In Hanks’ hands, Donovan is a real person, runny nose, doubts and all. Reality, tedium and wit supersede the hyperbole of the great man myth. In this way, it makes “Bridge of Spies” feel like a spiritual companion to “Lincoln.”
Perhaps most unexpected, though, is how Rylance sneaks up on you and proves himself to be the heart, soul, and standout of the film.
The Shakespearean actor is actually the first person we meet, in an elegant, nearly dialogue-free opening showing the FBI’s real time pursuit and arrest of Abel. Cold War-era fears want to paint him as the face of the enemy, but Rylance makes Abel sympathetic, and even docile. He plays him as a highly intelligent foot soldier who’s seen enough to know that even possible execution isn’t enough to get worked up over. It’s impossible not to like him.
But the story’s focus on Abel is juxtaposed with near indifference to Francis Gary Powers and the detained American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). Donovan wants to get them both out, and is confident enough in his negotiating skills to defy the CIA in the process, but the film doesn’t seem to care if you care about them — at least not in the way it does for Abel.
It’s in these unexpected details and choices that Spielberg continues to defy our skeptical movie expectations. He has a point of view, he has a plan, and he remains in a class of his own in his ability to both execute those ambitions and entertain in the process.
“Bridge of Spies”, a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some violence and brief strong language.” Running time: 142 minutes. Three stars out of four.
When audiences pay to see the limited roadshow engagement of Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” this holiday season, it won’t just be the projection of Ultra Panavision 70mm photography that distinguishes it from multiplex versions released two weeks later. It will be a slightly different — and longer — film overall.
“The roadshow version has an overture and an intermission, and it will be three hours, two minutes,” Tarantino told Variety. “The multiplex version is about six minutes shorter, not counting the intermission time, which is about 12 minutes.”
The two-time Oscar winner was not ordered to truncate the film for wider release. Rather, he liked the idea of the roadshow experience having a little something extra. “Nor did I want to treat the multiplex release like this left-handed version, either,” he said. So he tweaked certain scenes to better suit the separate viewing experiences.
“The 70 is the 70,” he said. “You’ve paid the money. You’ve bought your ticket. So you’re there. I’ve got you. But I actually changed the cutting slightly for a couple of the multiplex scenes because it’s not that. Now it’s on Showtime Extreme. You’re watching it on TV and you just kind of want to watch a movie on your couch. Or you’re at Hot Dog on a Stick and you just want to catch a movie.”
The sequences in question play in “big, long, cool, unblinking takes” in the 70mm version, Tarantino said. “It was awesome in the bigness of 70, but sitting on your couch, maybe it’s not so awesome. So I cut it up a little bit. It’s a little less precious about itself.”
Roadshow experiences are rare these days, but they have been implemented by filmmakers looking to make splashes. Kevin Smith toured his 2011 film “Red State,” four-walling it in theaters across the country at premium prices. In 2008, Steven Soderbergh’s two-part “Che” was presented as a double-feature roadshow in certain markets. Tarantino’s fellow celluloid proponents Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”) and Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar”) have released movies in the 70mm format in recent years, but it’s mostly reserved for repertory and retrospective programs.
Panavision retrofitted lenses for cameras during production of “The Hateful Eight” and made 2,000-foot magazines to hold the massive amounts of film. The Weinstein Company, meanwhile, is paying to install projectors in venues across the country. While only 16 70mm prints for “The Master” were struck, and 12 for “Interstellar,” the ambitious plan for the “Hateful Eight” roadshow is to play in 100 theaters. (Agencies)
Tarantino, who revamped the New Beverly Theater in Los Angeles last year with a film only directive, said 70mm could be a way to combat ubiquitous digital projection, a development he considers a bridge too far in the steady move away from celluloid.
“I didn’t realize what a lost cause 35mm projection was,” he said. “But what I also didn’t know is how excited everyone was going to be about 70. I think everybody is looking to see how we do in that first two weeks. But that’s also kind of exciting. I’m hoping that ‘Hateful Eight’ does well enough that that becomes, for the filmmakers who care, the new premier way to launch their movie in an exclusive way.” (Agencies)
By Lindsey Bahr