Since I am getting ready to offer a negative movie review for a film which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, I might as well start with a bang and admit it: I don’t like Tom Hanks—as an actor, of course, since I have never actually met the man. Can’t really think of a movie I have liked with him in, other than Toy Story, since The Burbs. If you haven’t caught this forgotten oldie but goodie starring Hanks and Carrie Fisher, I highly recommend you grab a bowl of popcorn and get ready for a good giggle.
Anyhow, back to Hanks and his tendency toward preachy, sanctimonious characters. I have learned just to avoid him, along with Julia Roberts who also puts me in a foul mood, but recently I made an exception. While staying with my folks and having had the movie recommended to me by friends and family alike, I agreed to watch Bridge of Spies. Unfortunately, the movie did little to change my opinion of Hanks.
Bridge of Spies has a lot going for it: based on a true story which takes place during a tension-filled period of history; one man of honor standing up against the tide of popular opinion to uphold justice and what is right; great writers (the Coen brothers) and, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood as its director (Steven Spielberg). What could possibly go wrong?
Well… I really wanted to like it. As the credits rolled and my dad talked about how this was his “kind of movie,” I really hated to be that person, the annoying one who feels the need to burst everyone’s feel good bubble. At least my family is used to it. So here is what I hated—yes hated—about this film. Jim Donovan, Hanks’ character, is a lawyer defending a known Soviet spy on trial for espionage.
Donovan doesn’t believe his personal or political feelings should get in the way of his defense of Rudolph Abel, the accused. In fact, he doesn’t reveal his feelings one way or another about what Abel has done—to Abel, his colleagues, or even his wife. This is my first criticism. This lack of conflict during the trial and after as events unfold in a way which pulls Donovan even further into the complex world of international diplomacy makes him a very one-dimensional character. Perhaps the filmmakers were portraying Donovan as he was in real life, maybe he was entirely comfortable with defending this man and having his personal and professional life severely disrupted, but, knowing human nature, I doubt. And knowing storytelling, the character who does what he believes to be right despite his own mixed feelings makes for a much more interesting and believable story.
The other aspect of the film that got my undergarments all in a tangle was the obviously negative slant towards the U.S. government and military during this period of history. I find it symptomatic of Hollywood’s blinding liberal bias that they continually cast government agents and institutions in a negative light when their own political viewpoint calls for more government intervention and control. There was not one positive CIA agent, judge, or military personnel in the entire film, unless of course, you count the Soviets. Jeez-Louise, this was a story about an evil, yes evil, system of government that wanted to topple democracy and end our political system of rights and civil liberties, who captured one of our soldiers, tortured him, along with an innocent grad student and only surrendered them in exchange for one of their own. In Bridge, the two countries, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, are represented as equal at best, with the U.S. sometimes coming off as worse. For the generations who didn’t grow up in the shadow of the Cold War, the message is “It’s all relative. Your country, my country. We are all the same.” Jim Donovan is the hero of the movie without a doubt, but what is entirely lost is that he is the hero because he is an American, a true American who believes in the Constitution of the United States of America and is willing to make sacrifices in order to defend it. Bridge of Spies makes us believe he is a nation unto himself, with everyone else against him. One of the incidents depicted in the movie, where Donovan’s house is being shot at, didn’t even happen but that didn’t stop the makers of the film from sneaking in an anti-police scene where officers confront Donovan about his defense of Abel.
After Donovan, the second most positive character is Abel, the Russian spy who is portrayed as a gentle, loving soul who wouldn’t hurt a fly, though he would work to subvert the freedom and security of the American people.
So there you have it. There’s my old fashioned, flag-waving criticism of Bridge of Spies. I assure you that I don’t see our nation through rose-colored glasses. I know that we have made grave mistakes and often fail to live up to our founding principles and ideals. But isn’t that all the more reason for those principles and ideals to be portrayed fairly, to inspire us to work hard, to do better? I would like to see Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks go back in time and try to make an anti-government movie behind the Iron Curtain. Perhaps then they might be a little more, dare I say it, fair and balanced in their films.