The Rule of Three: A Review of BRIDGE OF SPIES (Spielberg, 2015)

Bridge of Spies is a contender for the best Spielberg movie in ten or so years—a period of drop-off after what I take to be his most self-conscious and ambitious phase of the late 1990s/early 2000s through War of the Worlds (2005) and Munich (2005). After that came Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), surely his clumsiest effort of the century (although, The Terminal (2004) could claim that spot, too); The Adventures of Tintin (2011), which had exactly one decent scene, which seems to have been directed by Peter Jackson; and War Horse (2011), which better than most say, but worse than its supporters allege. Then came Lincoln (2012), which saw him return to truly challenging material. Sure, the Williams score was, once again, grating (happily, Skyfall’s Thomas Newman wrote the music for Bridge of Spies, and gave our ears time to rest), but I thought some of Lincoln’s politics—the portrait of Lincoln as a tough-as-nails-arm-twister—were timely, with the current president at times reluctant to apply the right submission hold on congress to get important measures passed. Only Spielberg could’ve made the final vote so bracing.

The last ten years, then, have been lean ones for Mr. DreamWorks, but Spies shows a return to form. Ignore the film’s use of what I’ll just call Zemeckis’s Sentimental Loop. Like the technique of the Strange Loop, it involves a return, in this case highly melodramatic, dripping with sentiment, to a symbolic rich moment from earlier in the movie. Near the end of Spies, Hanks is on the elevated train in New York, and he spots some boys hopping fences, which recalls an earlier moment when he saw some desperate East Germans gunned down while trying to climb the Berlin Wall, also from a train. Far too on the nose, the audience chuckled mildly at the Sentimental Loop on offer. (The audience I was with responded more favorably to another recent instance of this device, the sprout between the Matt Damon character’s feet when he was back on earth, at the end of The Martian.)

Spies, for the most part, rewards careful attention. Much of the film is organized into threes, one might even say triangles–at the level of composition and plotting. The opening shot gently ushers in the motif. The camera tracks back to reveal the KGB spy Rudolf Abel in his modest New York apartment. He’s painting a self-portrait, and the image is composed in thirds horizontally–on the left, a mirror, in the center Abel himself, and on the right, a canvas, the portrait. Later in the film, the Hanks character often finds himself in a three-way dance, in terms of blocking. One one occasion, he stands between the obstinate judge, who’s dressing in formal wear, and the judge’s wife, who prepares two glasses of scotch. Standing there awkwardly, between the gruff old man and his warm spouse, Hanks seems paralyzed with indecision.

At the level of plot structure, Hanks becomes jammed between two powers, the US and Russia, as they use proxies–ordinary Joes like Hanks’ character–for a hostage exchange. But when he travels to East Germany, the plot subdivides even further; Hanks wedges himself between East Germany and the USSR, at the center of their squabbles and a tripartite prisoner exchange involving the Abel and two Americans.

Politically, the film has problems, and some of them stem from the effort to place Hanks, the virtuous everyman lawyer, between–he’s the thoughtful individual, the humble family man who can save America and the Reds from themselves, the humanist whose pragmatism saves the world from ideology and ideology’s hard drive toward disaster.

But even this aspect of the film wins one over, here and there. I couldn’t help but wonder whether Spielberg is venturing increasingly into the realm of allegory–addressing the US’s political past in order to offer us an extended metaphor for the woes of the present. Hanks is the thoughtful citizen who stands up the anxious mob, so willing to dehumanize the other for the sake of “protecting the homeland.” Spielberg doesn’t make much of this allegory, but it’s there. And it may well signal a new, fertile phase in the career of one of Hollywood’s best filmmakers.