A suspected soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Rylance), is captured; the U.S government nominate renowned lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) as his representative. Although the ‘trial’ is all but ceremonial, Donovan tirelessly pursues fair, judicial and constitutional proceedings. When a U.S ‘U2’ pilot is captured after his spy plane is shot down over Soviet territory, there’s an opportunity for exchange; Donovan is enlisted once again to negotiate and orchestrate the handover.
There’s more filmmaking aptitude in the slow opening of Bridge of Spies than some filmmakers have in their entire career. Framing, steadiness, production design that effortlessly portrays the glorious spring in60s New York laden with fedoras and short sleeve shirts is the picturesque ideal, that when jeopardised, incites fear. Abel (Rylance) is painting a self portrait in his stuffy apartment, which is as much of a gambit to the audience as anything that occurs in the rest of the film. Rylance’s facade, as portrayed in the oil, mirrors the mask that his profession has required him to wear. The expression, or lack of, has a ‘Mona Lisa effect’; it’s an implacable slippery canvas for you to project upon more than something that defines how he’s feeling or what he’s thinking.
Rylance’s Rudolf Abel, the artist spy at the centre of Bridge of Spies is pitch perfect at being imperceptible. Rylance plays Abel cooler than a sleepy, bewildered retiree. He’s the perfect level of covert; not allowing any of what he’s going through effect how he visibly reacts. The tornadoes of uncertainty playing out beneath don’t even flutter on the surface. His lack of reaction enhances Hanks’ Donovan; because he’s fighting far more for the principles of the law than the individuals effected.
Tom Hanks is damned superb as always. They say that casting is everything and in this case I think that merely calling out that he’s well cast playing James B. Donovan, a character dripping with a genuine morality, balanced with empathy instead of preachy didacticism; discounts the nuance of the performance. Hanks has some beautifully crafted monologues from Charman and the Coen’s about how the constitution and the ‘rules’ make America what it is. A less skilful actor could have reduced the content to schmaltz but wielded by Hanks it’s stirring.
There’s a feeling in Bridge of Spies that those operatives on the ground have a pragmatism about the entire Cold War situation. Despite the significance of the ideological difference between the superpowers, each side, is intent on the prosperity of their people. The European content’s collision of borders and their strategic importance in maintaining power obviously makes for a harder line to draw, and therefore much fiercer controls. Spielberg and writers Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen seem to yearn for diplomacy as a nostalgic concept, no matter how hairy the situation. In modern examples of war, where the ideology is such a loaded ambivalence like ‘Terror’ the concepts of nations as anything more than settings for the latest exchange makes it impossible to negotiate terms of peace. Despite the hefty content, the highlights of Bridge of Spies come in moments that levity and the ridiculousness of the situation give a respite from the overwhelming hostility and tension. After Donovan must slog through the oppressive freezing winter streets of East Berlin; writers Charman and the Coen Brothers use the first encounters Abel’s “family” as a relieving pantomime. As these three strangers fumble through the character traits they’ve been advised to portray, you’re given permission to laugh at the reality of the overwhelming odds against the success of this exchange.
What’s wrong with Bridge of Spies? Technically; nothing. One might say that Spielberg’s too good at audience manipulation to the point that we can see it coming a mile away. For example, as Donovan (Hanks) is riding train across the line of east and west Berlin, he and the other passengers bear witness to escapees being gunned down. This foreshadows an echo that Donovan sees back home, watching kids safely scale the fences separating their neighbours. When you pair this with John Williams’ heavy handed score you start to reflexively cringe.
Just as Bridge of Spies poster will tell you, it’s “directed by Steven Spielberg,” and that will always make it worthwhile viewing. Bridge of Spies is ultimately a victim of both better political (Lincoln) and espionage (Munich) films immediately preceding this one.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Joshua Harto, Alan Alda, John Rue, Billy Magnussen, Amy Ryan, Jillian Lebling, Noah Schnapp, Eve Hewson, Joel Brady, Austin Stowell
Mark Rylance … Rudolf Abel
Tom Hanks … James B. Donovan
Joshua Harto … Bates
Alan Alda … Thomas Watters Jr.
John Rue … Lynn Goodnough
Billy Magnussen … Doug Forrester
Amy Ryan … Mary Donovan
Jillian Lebling … Peggy Donovan
Noah Schnapp … Roger Donovan
Eve Hewson … Carol Donovan
Austin Stowell … Francis Gary Powers