Bridge of Spies succeeds more on a technical level than a narrative one

tom hanks bridge of spiesOver the last few months, I’ve been getting more and more into the technical details of film.  So I knew that Bridge of Spies would be a master class, specifically on shot length, camera movement, and blocking.  If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Steven Soderbergh, who claims Spielberg has forgotten more about blocking than anyone else knows.

On this, it did not disappoint.  Spielberg unobtrusively uses his famous and highly effective oners throughout, usually with an ensemble.  In a conversation with Martin Scorsese on the Directors Guild of America’s new podcast “The Cut” (shout out to Darrell for the recommendation), Spielberg says that he would have shot in singles if he didn’t have such strong performances, but felt comfortable shooting in ensemble since the audience would always know where to look.

While that’s true, he still uses some subtle camera movements. I especially appreciate the way his oners combine multiple shots in one take (see Tony Zhou’s excellent Every Frame a Painting episode on these oners for countless great examples), like a nice two shot that effortlessly pushes in to a closeup.

But Spielberg’s blocking was what I was most excited to see, and now I know why Soderbergh is so impressed.  In their podcast conversation, Spielberg and Scorsese talk about telling the story visually, and that clearly influences everything Spielberg does.  Multiple shots have characters arranged diagonally in order of importance, and a final shot near the end even has them enter the frame in order, then stand – foreground to background – in order.  (I imagine that at this point in his career, Spielberg is so confident and experienced he basically does this kind of composition without even thinking about it.)

The only technical choices I didn’t understand were the heavy-handed color grading (colorful, warm, and bright for New York; desaturated, cold, and gray for Berlin) and some odd barrel distortion in some scenes.  Both were apparently done on purpose, as Spielberg describes the color palette choices as conscious in the podcast and, based on the talent of his team, I assume the lens choices are as well.  I actually feel bad bringing this up, because he goes on to say that everything in the film save the U-2 crash is a practical effect (he even went as far as super-imposing frosty breath recorded by stand-ins over his actors rather than creating it digitally).  For the record, I didn’t dislike either – they just stood out.

But despite all of this technical proficiency, Bridge of Spies lacked a real emotional punch. It’s not for lack of story or performance, as the story is powerful and the actors, especially Mark Rylance, are superb.  If anything, I blame the script.  While I am a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, they and Spielberg do not have . . . similar styles.  Sometimes their irreverence helps, as in Tom Hanks’ clever, dialogue heavy introduction or in Rylance’s deadpan gallows humor.  Both feel in keeping with the tone of the film.  But as the film gets more serious, and people start talking about serious things, the tone shifts rapidly. Rylance’s early story about the “standing man,” which gets a powerful callback near the end of the film, is drowned out by jokes about Hanks having a bad cold or being “in dutch with the wife,” to quote the Coens’ Raising Arizona.  In the end, I just don’t think the Coens take the film as seriously as Spielberg does, and it shows.

(As a screenwriting aside, I find it odd that such a visual storyteller as Spielberg relies on two (!) expository news reports to drive the story along, although the second one has a decent payoff.)

I’m surprised that Bridge of Spies is up for best picture, but Spielberg isn’t up for best director.  I could very well be missing something, as Scorsese states he watched the film twice: once for the technical details and once for the story.  Since the chances of me persuading my wife to watch the same movie twice in a weekend are precisely zero, I might have revisit this one on my own once it hits iTunes.

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