Wednesday, November 11, 2015

BRIDGE OF SPIES: My review

If I had to describe BRIDGE OF SPIES in one word it would be “impeccable.”

If I had to describe BRIDGE OF SPIES in two words they would be “too long.”

Technically, the picture is a stunning achievement. But hey, it’s Spielberg. You figure you’re not going to see boom shadows. And there is a precision that permeates every frame. His eye misses nothing. Every shadow, every prop is painstakingly placed. I could see him spending half a day adjusting the rolled up aluminum foil on the TV dinners.

There’s a great sequence where we see the Berlin Wall being constructed and the heartbreak of East Berliners trying to flee to the West.
My favorite delicious detail – a movie theater in West Berlin is showing ONE, TWO, THREE, the Billy Wilder comedy about the Berlin Wall.  Nice touch, maestro. 

Like the truly great directors, Spielberg can put you almost into the scene. It was as if I was shivering and anxious trudging through the snow in ravaged East Berlin instead of Tom Hanks.  Where's my Oscar nomination?

And Spielberg always gets excellent acting performances. It doesn’t hurt that he can attract talent like Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, but still -- he gets the most out of them. I’m sure MOMMIE DEAREST wouldn’t be such a joke if Spielberg had directed Faye Dunaway.

But BRIDGE OF SPIES is not exactly a “thriller.” It’s more of a “Hmmm, that’s kinda interesting.” Spielberg introduces us to an admirable protagonist, an intriguing true event, and the theme of upholding American principles in the face of warfare reverberates today. But there’s hardly any suspense.

And even that would be okay if the movie wasn’t almost two-and-a-half hours. I knew the premise. A U.S. citizen has to negotiate a spy trade with the Russians. But I just sort of assumed that was the tip of the iceberg and would lead our hero down a rabbit hole to a terrifying world of complications, espionage, betrayals, heart-pounding sequences, and borscht. No. It’s just the negotiation. And those of us of a certain age or studied history know the outcome.

Bottom line: I love that time period. I’m a total ‘60s-phile. And I was checking my watch an hour in. You don’t need 2:21 to tell that story. And the fact that it was that long suggests “Oscar Grab.” (The glossy color program they were distributing at the screening suggests that also.) When every frame of Spielberg’s film is carefully calculated, it’s not a stretch to think that wasn't part of his thinking too.

And Spielberg is not alone in this. Films with complex themes made for grown ups are traditionally released during Oscar season.

Someone cynical might even say that Academy Awards are the ONLY reason studios greenlight such mature fare. But I of course am not one of these cynics. It’s purely a coincidence that any movie not starring a guy who can fly comes out in the fall.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is worth seeing. But a more entertaining movie on the time period might be ONE, TWO, THREE.

38 comments:

Peter said...

I'll be there opening night when it's released in the UK in a couple of weeks, but I am getting a little tired of Spielberg's "history" movies. He's a genius, no question, and some of his serious films have been terrific, but I wish he'd do something different for once, like an R rated thriller or horror. His idea of grown-up movies is based entirely upon doing history stories and nothing else. I wish he'd cut loose and do an adult movie that isn't trying to be serious but just fun, the same way Scorsese does with films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Departed.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Sorry Ken. I know it was a joke. But since it's Veterans Day, I'll go slightly historical.

The Berlin Wall was constructed to keep it's own people in. Someone tell that to Roger Waters next time he compares it to Israel's fences.


Bill Jones said...

Um, East Germany built its wall to keep its own people from leaving the country, not to stop ousiders from getting in. So the analogy underlying your Trump joke doesn't work.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

"One, Two, Three" I always thought would be a good candidate for a remake.
Obviously instead of Coca-Cola, the Studio would use Apple, or Facebook.
They would remove all the Communist stuff, and instead substitute Big Oil or a Religious Cult
Woody Harrelson would be Cagney's character.

Bill Avena said...

Would Speilberg have worked in "Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" into a movie like Wilder did? Sure, some kind of Miley Cyrus cross-promotion with Mountain Dew..

Nick Alexander said...

I love One Two Three. Cagney's most underrated performance... it so exhausted him he retired for twenty years.

Stoney said...

Worth noting that Speilberg directed the real "Mommy Dearest", Joan Crawford, in the short film "Eyes" that was part of the "Night Gallery" pilot.

Pat Reeder said...

Haven't seen this movie, but I love "One, Two, Three." Don't know how many of today's precious snowflakes who think the world began the day they were born would get the jokes, but I think it's still hilarious. Cagney's delivery makes me think that Wilder must've directed it like "His Girl Friday," where Howard Hawks used a stopwatch and had the actors keep doing the scenes faster and faster. Maybe Spielberg should try that, and then his movies would be 80 minutes instead of 2-1/2 hours.

Roseann said...


Gotcha, Ken- I believe it should be 60's-phile.

cadavra said...

Pat: Wilder specifically said he wanted to make a movie faster than HIS GIRL FRIDAY. I've introduced ONE TWO THREE many times at film festivals and warned the audiences that they will indeed be wrung out when it's over. And they are. In a good way, of course. It's my second favorite movie (after MAD MAD WORLD).

Nick: Cagney's retirement was caused partly by shooting overseas for such an extended period and partly being fed up with Horst Buchholz's bullshit I'm-a-star behavior. It was a tough role, but he wasn't the sort of guy who'd up and quit over that.

AJ Ford said...

Re: One, Two, Three - This was the first time I ever saw a paternoster and wished there were more of them.

Michael said...

Bear in mind that Cagney was into his sixties and probably beginning to feel some of the health problems that would plague him later. He was especially tuckered out by the scene where he's standing in the office barking orders as people run in and out because that was a continuous take.

As great as the whole movie is, the Red Buttons scene is worth just about any admission price.

Mighty Dyckerson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Igor said...

I LOVE "One, Two, Three"!

@ cadavra - Yes, it is tiring (in a great way). And while I've long been a fan of Mad, Mad World, that film really does not hold up to today. My sense is: Unless you know those actors, it's just not that great. (And I say that as someone who has such affection for it, I've written a script inspired by it.)

jcs said...

ONE, TWO, THREE is a terrific film. If you are looking for a slightly more serious take at the Cold War in Germany, have a look at THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006). The film won an Academy Award and gives you a realistic look at East Germany's secret police, the Stasi. I believe this film has what Ken criticised about BRIDGE OF SPIES: unexpected plot twists and characters changing course

As a bonus, if you should ever find yourself in Berlin, you can visit the former Stasi prison in a district called Hohenschönhausen. You will recognise a few things from THE LIVE OF OTHERS, like a secret prisoner transport van that has "fruits and vegetables" written on it. Ironically, there weren't too many fruits and vegetables available in East Germany most of the time.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0405094/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Former Stasi prison museum (tours in English are available)
http://en.stiftung-hsh.de/

Dixon Steele said...

Pat Reeder.

Too bad Spielberg wasn't advised by you at the start of his career. Imagine how successful he would've been then!

Cheryl Marks said...

Friday Question: Speaking of Oscar consideration, Volunteers. I noticed that IMDB says Keith Critchlow wrote the story and you and David Isaacs wrote the screenplay. Did Keith come up with Tom or did you and David? (IMDB states the "writers" say Tom . . . "was a creation we enjoyed, like someone I knew in college." Tom Tuttle from Tacoma is some great alliteration. Was Tom's name/school in anyway inspired from your time calling Mariners games? His scene leading the Red Guard singing the Wazzu fight song is one of the funniest gags I've seen on screen. Speaking of which, have you seen any Cougar football this year? They're actually kind of good.

sanford said...

I was 12 years old when Gary Powers was captured by the Russians. I kind of remember when he was released but really didn't know anything about it. The story is so old at this point that people in there 30's and 40's probably have no idea about this story. I have a 32 year old who barely knows who Brian Wilson is, so I wouldn't expect him to know this story. As for the length of the movie as Ebert said it doesn't matter how long it is as long as it is good.

Mama Zen said...

Sounds kind of disappointing.

Igor said...

BTW, if anyone wants to see a very good, funny/touching film about East Germany at the time when the Berlin Wall comes down, check out "Good Bye Lenin!" (2003).

From IMDB: "In 1990, to protect his fragile mother from a fatal shock after a long coma, a young man must keep her from learning that her beloved nation of East Germany as she knew it has disappeared."

MikeN said...

Doesn't all of that apply equally to The Terminal?

Peter said...

Igor

Goodbye Berlin had a couple of funny scenes but it made the fatal mistake a lot of comedies make. It repeated the same basic joke over and over until it had run it into the ground, and it was far too long. It was something that would have worked much better as a short film.

Peter said...

Sorry, of course I meant Goodbye Lenin!

Johnny Walker said...

THE LIVES OF OTHERS. Seriously. If I could make you watch this film, I would. Alas it will remain largely unwatched. Remember that feeling when you finally got around to watching BREAKING BAD? You have at least two more coming: THE WIRE and, should you ever track down a copy and watch it, THE LIVES OF OTHERS.

After a recent visit to Berlin, I watch TLOT again and I've been meaning to check out ONE, TWO, THREE, since. Definitely next on my list!

Anonymous said...

The Lives of Others is superb.
An antidote to the smoldering passion for socialism in our midst these days.
Another superb film from that era -The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.
Won't find better performances than thrones in that movie.

Igor said...

@ Peter - I won't say Good Bye Lenin is a great film, but I did like the characters. And the premise is audacious.

I was interested in the small details of life, east v west. And the premise made such details important - such as the pickle jar label (IIRC) in the dumpster.

I was also fascinated by the window into what it must have been like for people in East Germany when the wall fell - especially people who (like the mother) had 100% bought into the system. The adult version of learning there is no Santa Claus.

D. McEwan said...

"And those of us of a certain age or studied history know the outcome."

And those of us who knew personally one of the principals. I worked with Francis Gary Powers at KGIL for several years. He was a sweet, gentle, brave man (And hardly the male model he looks like in the movie). Whenever I had an afternoon free and the weather was clear, I would spend the afternoon drive time up in the station's two-seater Cessna, soaring over our freeways with Frank Powers, so I spent many happy hours up in the air with him, just the two of us. He told me a lot about his great adventure during those flights. I was deeply saddened by his death, in a helicopter crash. And even in that, he was a hero. He could have landed his out-of-fuel 'copter in a playing field, but it was full of kids playing baseball, and he had no way to warn them, so rather than risk hurting or killing kids, he chose to crash the 'copter where no one but its occupants, himself and a KNBC camera man, were killed.

His first day flying for us, I wrote a bit for him he did on the air with Dick Whittington: "

Dick: "Now to our new skywatch pilot, Francis Gary Powers in Skywatch 1."

Frank: "Thank you, Dick. Traffic over the Moscow turnpike is heavily congested, with traffic backed up all the way to the Lenin's Tomb offramp."

Dick: "Frank, are you reporting on Moscow? You're supposed to be flying over the San Fernando Valley."

Frank: "Are we at war with the Valley?"

When Rudolph Abel died, I wrote a line which Frank did on the air for us: "Now that Rudolph Abel has died, does this mean I have to go back to Russia?"

I loved Frank Powers, a charming and modest American hero.d

AlaskaRay said...

Ken, did you know Gary Powers when he was doing the traffic reports for KMPC. He took over after Jim Hickland died. Jim would often take me up with him and was teaching me to fly a helicopter. When Gary took over he gave me a couple lessons, too. I have photos if you ever want to see them. I was devastated when he was killed in a crash. I can't wait to see this movie.
Ray

Chris Muir said...

My problem with most recent Spielberg movies is that they all feature what I've been calling an "emotional coda" at the end, that ties up how you're supposed to feel about the movie, and wraps it with a bow.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

No mention of your colleague, Alan Alda?

Igor said...

@ Chris Muir - Agreed. And, coda is a great term. Though I always wonder how well it works with anyone who hasn't seen/played them in sheet music.

Breadbaker said...

D. McEwan, you win the Internet (along with Ken) for extending and giving some real contour to the Powers story. We read blogs for their author but when the commenters can extend our enjoyment that way, it's a real bonus. Thanks!

Sue Dunham said...

I LOVE One, Two Three. ..."All I want from you, Scarlet Piffle, is silence, and very little of it."

Andrew said...

On these lines I would recommend the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Alec Guinness, Ian Richardson, and so many more great actors. Fantastic dialogue. Long, drawn-out suspense. One of the best things I've ever seen.
(The Gary Oldman version was a travesty.)

D. McEwan said...

"Andrew said...
The Gary Oldman version was a travesty.)"


Well, that's an overstatement. It was a reader's digest version, with the extremely complex story condensed so much it was hard to follow. But it was intelligently written and directed and very well acted by a cast just as excellent as in the earlier version.

Anonymous said...

Frank Powers (we at KGIL called him Frank, not Gary) was truly a wonderful person as D. McEawn said. I got to fly the afternoon traffic reports with him one Friday when we got off early for a holiday, and he saw me leaving and asked I like to go up with him. I said sure! Can I bring my son? He said sure, meet me at the hanger. My son, then 7 or 8, sat on my lap and steered the plane. Frank handled the pedals, throttle and traffic reports. My son, still talks about it.....

Anonymous said...

Saw the movie yesterday. I'm sure Spielberg over dramatized a lot, so will have to read up on what really happened and fact check it. Don't recall Frank Powers having a problem ejecting. He wrote a book, so will look that up too.

Gerry said...

I call these movies Spielberg's Obligatory History Lessons. I will probably see it eventually. But I'm thrilled to see this spark a discussion of The Lives of Others. We've got it on dvd and we'll be watching it tonight!