Atticus: The Cold War Years – ★★
Knowing that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s latest dalliance with Tom Hanks (along with Matt Charman) goes a long way to understanding why Bridge of Spies is so tonally mismatched. Ticking more boxes for comedic laughs, rather than suspense and thrills, it fails to reach the heights it promises with such a strong cast.
Hanks plays James Donovan a lawyer tasked with defending a Russian spy during the cold war. Donovan is a patriot, a family man and has a haircut you could set your watch by. He’s a real Atticus Finch type but more emotional, not having quite the steely exterior of Gregory Peck. Regardless of what the Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) has or hasn’t done, Donovan is adamant he gets a fair trial even if it makes him the most hated man in America. While the trial is taking place we have another strand to the story whereby a bunch of fresh American pilots are being put through their paces with the latest spy plane.
One of the American soldiers gets captured by the Russians and a trade off between the two nations is imminent. As neither government can be seen to show a weakness Donovan is enlisted to negotiate the swap. To make matters worse the exchange must take place in Berlin which has just become the proud owner of a new wall. The film flies along and although it clocks in at 140 minutes it never drags which is part of the problem, there are no pauses, no time to contemplate the gravity of the situation or consequences involved. Instead it’s one schmaltzy setup after the next.
Hanks and Rylance are fantastic and a treat to watch but they alone can’t hide the major flaw of the film. Spielberg has plastered his heavy handed pro-America paintbrush all over the place. Time and time again we are shown how great and fair America is with it’s democracy compared to the savagery and chaos of the Russians and Germans. There are no shadows or dark corners, no danger of stumbling across Alec Guinness or Richard Burton. Everyone is two dimensional and squeaky clean. However it does have one thing in common with its better predecessors in that the role of women is non-existent. They are merely reduced to open mouths gazing at their impressive men.
In America at present if you’re black you’re better off not having an altercation with a police officer. The country is involved in drone attacks in Pakistan which inevitably result in civilian casualties. No matter how many children are gunned down in Sandy Hook style shootings, gun laws are sacred. The response to all this from one of their foremost directors is a cutesy look back at one hand-picked incident from a very murky time in the 1960s.
Granted Spielberg has never been a bastion of protest cinema but the pedalling of his mawkish rose tinted view of the Cold War leaves quite a sour taste given all that is going on in the world at present.
Bridge of Spies is released nationwide on Friday the 27th of November