Higher Stakes Needed on ‘Bridge of Spies’

I’ve spent all this time ruminating on De La Soul and Saving Private Ryan, I suppose, to highlight the fault I find with Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, another historic film in his library of moving monuments to the pivotal event

click to enlarge Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in 'Bridge of Spies'
Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in 'Bridge of Spies'

Back in the summer of 1996, De La Soul’s fourth album, Stakes is High, dropped and Hip Hop seemed to skip a beat. The group broke off from their long-time producing partner Prince Paul, forging its own path with assistance from a few guest producers. The real issue — front and center on the album and soon to be a cultural debate within the Hip Hop community — was the sense of a growing commercialization of the form and an overt concern about the rise of Gangsta Rap as a mainstream force in the industry.

Two years later, on the film front, Steven Spielberg gave us Saving Private Ryan, a brutal examination of war — World War II — from the perspective of soldiers storming the shores of Normandy on D-Day, a ragtag team of survivors enlisted to embark on a peculiar mission to retrieve a fellow soldier, the now only-surviving member of a family of brothers lost in combat.

How many lives must be sacrificed in order to save one, to guarantee that one family name will have the chance to continue? The film deals with that question, but does so by bookending the philosophical query with epic assaults, the likes of which hadn’t been realized in such a way on film up to that point.

I find it intriguing now to look back at Saving Private Ryan as the last time Spielberg presented audiences with a film in which the stakes were as high. Maybe his legacy was sealed with that quest to find and save Private Ryan (Matt Damon) with the supreme Everyman Tom Hanks in charge of the determined and largely unquestioning outfit.

At any moment, it felt as if any of these men — soldiers all, but some more recognizable as regular men of their time — could succumb to a bullet or a bomb, and by extension, we were just as vulnerable. Who needs 3-D effects to heighten our raw and exposed nerves and sensibilities?

I’ve spent all this time ruminating on De La Soul and Saving Private Ryan, I suppose, to highlight the fault I find with Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, another historic film in his library of moving monuments to the pivotal events of our times.

Since Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg has set his sights on the aftermath of Black September (Munich) and, most recently, the final complex political days of President Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln). But, by and large, there has been a tactical retreat from the tense and precarious standoffs fraught with life-or-death implications so evident in Saving Private Ryan. Danger may lurk in Spielberg’s frames, but an efficient and relatively bloodless escape most definitely awaits.

For the first half of Bridge of Spies, such concerns hardly matter. American lawyer James Donovan (Hanks, once again) takes on the thankless assignment of defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy captured by the CIA and brought to trial to show the world how dedicated we are to our ideals. That Donovan goes the extra mile and then some for Abel (arguing valiantly for him to not be executed) proves to be a precise chess masterstroke, because soon the U.S. will need him for a prisoner swap after a detained pilot and an American student find themselves trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Donovan stumbles into another impossible assignment, serving as the U.S. negotiator in Germany at a time when the government cannot acknowledge his efforts. He must make several trips across the rising Berlin Wall, staying one step ahead of thugs and spymasters alike, bluffing all the way, while just beyond his insular back-channel realm, real people fall prey to the military (locked away in prisons or murdered in the streets).

Spielberg keeps such nastiness at bay with able assistance from his all-American stalwart Hanks. This critical take in no way diminishes the fine work of Hanks, or even the subtle behind-the-scenes maneuvers of Spielberg and his talented crew — especially long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski or the Coen Brothers (who share screenwriting credit with Matt Charman).

I would simply be remiss if I failed to point out the lowered stakes. The closest the film comes to acknowledging that anyone’s life might truly be on the line is in the blankly understated face of Rylance’s Abel.

We know from the get-go that Abel is a spy, and his supremely steadfast adherence to his mission extends to the end. When faced with a return to his comrades, he serenely enters the back of a car with agents all around and the sense that his ultimate failure could very well mean death. It is too bad that Abel crosses that final bridge alone. (Opens wide Friday) (PG-13) Grade: B-

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