When the bomb comes 

Tom Hanks stars in 'Bridge of Spies.'

'BRIDGE OF SPIES': Tom Hanks plays an insurance lawyer brought into an international espionage incident.
  • 'BRIDGE OF SPIES': Tom Hanks plays an insurance lawyer brought into an international espionage incident.

You can't help but appreciate a title like "Bridge of Spies." The way it's flat and lurid and vague and kind of stupid, in the style of old Cold War noir — like something Fritz Lang would have directed or Graham Greene would have written. You think of trench coats and betrayal and long, sinister shadows. I can't even say it without smiling. Also, one of my co-workers recommended it, or almost: He called it a "good old-folks movie."

The film was directed by Steven Spielberg, whose name is itself a strong, trustworthy, American brand, like Ford Motors or General Electric. You can assume a certain degree of competence. Probably the most conservative of the New Hollywood crowd (compare his script choices to Scorsese's or Friedkin's or Coppola's), Spielberg nevertheless made a career out of rehabilitating — or, depending on your perspective, gentrifying — such otherwise disreputable B-movie scenarios as the UFO invasion, the shark attack and the dinosaur epic. He's at his best when he's reveling in the trash of previous generations, channeling his giddy inner 12-year-old, who could devour comic books with something like spiritual awe. Full disclosure: I'm on his side. For that matter, I'm the only fan of "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" I've ever met.

So it's with some pretty profound regret that I tell you we may never know, after all, what Spielberg's pulp Cold War spy thriller would look like. Because this isn't it. With the notable exception of its prologue, this is a spy movie without spying, a political thriller without thrills. It's a good movie that becomes a muddled movie that becomes a long and pedantic movie. What it lacks in intrigue and suspense, it makes up for in attempts at moral gravity. It belongs to that other, parallel tendency in Spielberg's career, the one that brought us "War Horse" and "Munich" and "Amistad" and Oscars. It's a prestige period drama with centrist, uncontroversial political implications. The kind of film in which a stern Tom Hanks asks, at one point, "What makes us Americans?"

For about the first half of the film, the answer to that question turns out to be interesting. A courtroom drama, with Hanks cast in the principled Atticus Finch role, the film follows an insurance lawyer enlisted by the Bar Association to defend an accused Soviet spy — a thankless task nobody wants, designed to fail. Everywhere there are deliberate suggestions of our present political climate: the echoes of extraordinary rendition, drones, blind jingoism and an inept CIA willing to trade the moral high ground for gamesmanship. This half of the film depicts the irrationality of patriotism — when we're just as bad as the enemy, the very concept of an "enemy" loses all meaning, becomes abstracted, a politically useful figment of the nationalist imagination. Hanks' character gets a glimpse of this vision — sympathy for the devil — and so we do, too.

In the second half, though, having stumbled on a provocative idea, "Bridge of Spies" backs down from it and apologizes meekly to anyone who might have been offended. We see East Berlin at its most grim, a sci-fi wasteland worlds away from our sunny American lawns and marmalade and popcorn. What a relief! We treat each other right over here, when it matters — not like those communist savages. Nevermind that the film is set in 1957, when Little Rock was occupied by the National Guard, when American citizens were routinely beaten and murdered for crimes like voter registration.

In other words, what are we doing here? What's the value of another lecture on shifty mid-century totalitarian ideology? One that Spielberg and Hanks don't even seem that invested in? It's a bad fit. Put another way: Spielberg always inspires wonder, but he never inspires. He just doesn't have a knack for history or polemic. If I watched it again, I'd probably wander off after the opening sequence, a bravura "Spy vs. Spy" comic strip that affirms the director's gift for creating visual tension. Like a phantom limb of the thriller that almost was.


From the ArkTimes store


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Will Stephenson

  • A Q&A with Peter Guralnick

    On writing biographies, Elvis, Charlie Rich and more.
    • Apr 14, 2016
  • Ruthie Foster comes to South on Main

    Also, Mumford and Sons at Verizon, 29th Annual Ozark UFO Conference in Eureka Springs, Fantastic Cinema and Craft Beer Festival at Riverdale and Melanne Verveer at the Clinton School.
    • Apr 7, 2016
  • Goodbye to all that (Arkansas edition)

    What I'm trying to say is that I'm quitting the Arkansas Times — this is my last week — and not because I hated it, but because I loved it so much.
    • Apr 6, 2016
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Not much to 'Love'

    In Judd Apatow's new Netflix original series.
    • Feb 25, 2016

Most Shared

  • Trump unfit

    Even as an oligarch, President Trump turns out to be breathtakingly incompetent. Is there any reason to suppose he's even loyal to the United States? Does he even understand the concept? Trump is loyal to Trump, and to his absurdly swollen ego. Nothing and nobody else.
  • You want tort reform? Try this.

    The nursing home industry and the chamber of commerce finally defeated the trial lawyers in the 2017 legislature. The Republican-dominated body approved a constitutional amendment for voters in 2018 that they'll depict as close to motherhood in goodness.
  • Goodbye, Mr. Trump

    It is hard to escape the feeling that the fortunes of President Trump and the country took a decisive, and for Trump a fatal, turn May 9-10, when the president fired the director of the FBI over its investigation of Russian efforts to swing the presidential election to him and the very next day shared top-secret intelligence with Russian officials in an Oval Office meeting closed except to a Kremlin press aide toting electronic gear to capture the intimate session for Russians but not Americans.
  • Raw feelings in the Arkansas Justice Building over workload, pay

    Strained relations between the Arkansas Supreme Court and the Arkansas Court of Appeals broke into public view this week. I expect more to come.

Latest in Movie Reviews

Visit Arkansas

New Entrance and North Forest to debut with Chihuly exhibit opening at Crystal Bridges

New Entrance and North Forest to debut with Chihuly exhibit opening at Crystal Bridges

Dual Chihuly exhibit opening also brings culmination of year-plus forest project

Event Calendar

« »


  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30 31  

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: Tollywood tumble

    • Thank you for sharing.
      Telugu Film Actress Gallery

    • on May 22, 2017
  • Re: A Q&A with Bob Dorough

    • like Rodney replied I'm taken by surprise that you able to profit $9659 in four…

    • on May 20, 2017

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation