The name Steven Spielberg instantly commands attention, as a director who has consistently demonstrated mastery of his craft. If he directed The Teletubbies, I’d watch it, because his capacity for visual storytelling is that finely tuned. But more than in a technical sense, he has certain sentimental themes he likes to return to, and the remarkable true-life story of Bridge of Spies is a triumph of humanism that Spielberg brings to the screen fluently. It’s no wonder that German Chancellor Angela Merkel observed the filming on the titular Glienicke Bridge (which used to connect domestically-held West and Soviet-controlled East Germany); Bridge of Spies represents a confluence of artistic talent and historical relevance.
In 1957, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in Brooklyn and tried for Soviet espionage, and insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to handle Abel’s defense. Even as Abel is found guilty, Donovan goes beyond the expected call of duty and succeeds in securing his client a sentence of 30 years imprisonment rather than execution. One salient argument of his: that Abel may be useful as a bargaining chip in the future. Cut to 1960, when U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the USSR, and Donovan is tapped to handle the exchange of Abel for Powers. But when the Berlin Wall is erected the following year and American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the East German Stasi, Donovan feels he must go against everything his CIA allies are telling him and not accept Powers without Pryor as well. It’s the right thing to do, but the chances for it to backfire are real…
Donovan is a man in the eye of the storm of a potential international incident, and Hanks plays him as a beacon of decency. As a historical dramatization, the story sort of writes itself; there is a symmetry to real events that lends itself to a script, and it all revolves on the axis of Donovan’s determination to do the right thing. Hanks’ role is familiar performance ground for him, and is not showy as a more ambiguous character might lend itself to be, but he knocks it out of the park all the same. And Donovan’s bit about what makes an American is a quick and understated beat, but still enough to make me want to cheer.
Matching him (though with a lot less screen time) is Rylance as the accused Soviet spy. He’s fantastic in a largely internalized role, magnetic despite coming across as having the mildest of manners. In a sense both Rylance and Hanks are underplaying their roles, but getting more out of them that way, doing a lot with a little while seemingly effortlessly drawing the audience in. The rest of the cast are effective in proportion to their function but mostly incidental. The female characters in particular (intentionally?) don’t make an impression and are underwritten. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the time period?
The world of Bridge of Spies at first blush looks profoundly unwelcoming, with lots of greys and metallic colors. But with Spielberg as our guide, the richness of the world shines through. His trademark “oners” take us over either side of the under-construction Berlin Wall, around and inside a car beset by incipient snow, and following bicycle couriers in an administrative building. Each extended take involves us in the setting. And there is a wealth of visual parallelism between the USA and USSR’s deployment of espionage being in many ways exactly the same.
Spielberg has often talked about his existential fear of atomic apocalypse, so the “duck and cover” material is in there as well. The other harsh realities of the time period are present but not in your face. I love how the public vilification of Donovan is there, accomplished by compact visual storytelling and not dwelt upon hamfistedly. The script (by Matt Charman and punched up by the Coen brothers) avoids melodrama and remains sharp and taut throughout.
And it all culminates in the Glienicke Bridge scene, which is really an ideal Spielbergian climax. It’s got his familiar background spotlights illuminated our characters. It’s got inherent tension, and it centers around the moral accomplishment of one man’s need to secure the safety of not one but two people. Consider it the Cold War’s own Close Encounters visitation sequence.
Bridge of Spies is a great, unshowy movie that is the product of a bunch of talented people firing on all cylinders. Hanks and Rylance play off each other subtly but memorably, the script is on point, and Spielberg hits the visual and emotional beats like clockwork. Not that the film feels artificial! It’s just, what else can I expect from probably the world’s greatest living filmmaker? Bridge of Spies is an understated but fiendishly well-constructed piece. It quietly rocks. 9/10.
In November 1977, six months after George Lucas gave the world Star Wars, Steven Spielberg complemented that whizz-bang crackerjack science fantasy adventure with a work of pure science fiction that blew audiences away all over again. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind took a very different tack, using predominantly visual storytelling supported by the bare minimum of plot. But the plot is not absent, it is just simple: UFOs appear, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and others become drawn to the Devil’s Tower national monument in Wyoming, and that’s where humans and aliens make contact. Simple as. But don’t think that captures the essence of this film; this is a hypnotic and stunning cinematic experience. Just a note: this review based on original theatrical release, as that is the only one of the three versions I had access to. I look forward to watching the Special Edition and Director’s Cut in future.
The film is about the difficulty of communication, and what better way to illustrate this than in the opening scene in which French, Spanish and English speakers all struggle to get through to each other while yelling in a sandstorm? The film does a great job of showing the press of humanity and the chaos of communication, all beautifully building up to a climax that represents simplicity, intimacy and clarity. Another remarkable thing is that while the film is so cluttered with human noise, the “conspiracy” aspect of the film is never didactic, or the subject of exposition. The audience is never told the meaning of the title, and certain plot points only really start to reveal their scope toward the very end.
It is that very chaos, however, that may put off some, which is understandable. There are reams and reams of words in this script, unruly communication which is deliberately off-putting. There are many, many lines in the film, but nothing in the way of crucial dialogue. This is a true cinematic experience, owing to Speilberg writing the screenplay himself and knowing where the focus should be. The sound is mixed in such a way that a lot of dialogue is difficult to understand or make out, and in this way the theme of the difficulty of communication engages the audience directly. Now let’s talk about subtitles. I personally am a big subtitle fan; I watch almost all my films with subtitles whenever possible. But Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a very special case. I have never seen a film that so demanded to be watched without subtitles. The sometimes incomprehensible or messy noise of human speech is part of the texture of the film, and subtitles, being a way to artificially understand, only diminish the experience of the film.
The way Spielberg gives us such a great visual experience also applies to the performances, which are made or broken by anything other than dialogue. Richard Dreyfuss gives a great central performance, communicating obsession that doesn’t need declarations or monologues to shine through. François Truffaut gets across so much of a dignified character with an absolute minimum of traditional character development. However, that lack of traditional dialogue tropes means that Teri Garr’s character of Roy Neary’s wife is reduced to a quite undignified roadblock. It’s a thankless role for Garr, so it’s no wonder she wanted the much more proactive role of Jillian Guiler that became Melinda Dillon’s, as there’s so much more there.
The build-up in the film is very deliberate and slow, but to say that the payoff is something special would be to profoundly undersell it. Sometimes a simple conceit hits like a bullseye. Threaded throughout the film are foreshadowings of the shape of the Devil’s Tower mountain, and a five note melody. Obsession/fixation is one of the most cogent things film can portray, and the foreshadowing of the shape of the mountain, and the application of the melody, shares the characters’ preoccupation with the audience. There’s a reason the John Williams-composed five note melody is iconic. For one thing, it contains the “perfect fifth”, also known as the heroic fifth (it’s a tried-and-true musical interval with roots in the way harmonics work). Williams composed the Close Encounters score mere months after Star Wars, both using that fifth; both uses are brilliant, but they have such distinct contexts.
Speaking of contrasts to Star Wars, the mothership arriving sees Lucas’ famous Star Destroyer shot, and raises it a near-religious experience. The Douglas Trumball model work on the aliens’ mothership is breathtaking. A little later, I like to think of the ship opening as the ultimate Spielberg, in that he loves his floodlights (see image below). The entire climax is hypnotically good, creating a sense of wonder and warmth unmatched in cinema. I shouldn’t be here describing it, reducing it to words. It just has to be seen, and felt, to be believed.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a masterpiece. Many of its elements have saturated pop culture deeply because they are rooted in an indelible fixation. The build-up to a cathartic and life-affirming climax is flawless, punctuated by committed performances and the direction of a genius. Is it irony that Spielberg communicates the theme of the difficulty of communication so well? 10/10.