Steven Spielberg’s latest begins inauspiciously – a title card on black amidst ambient street noises. And while Bridge of Spies initially seems like a modest movie, it reveals its intent slowly before building to a typically Spielbergian crescendo of emotion. Working as lead actor and director for the fourth time, Tom Hanks and Spielberg fit together now as naturally as peanut butter and chocolate, allowing their accrued history to do much of the heavy lifting in a movie that’s helped immeasurably by another pair of collaborators – The Coen Brothers as screenwriters (credited along with Matt Charman). That’s a murderer’s row of filmmaking talent, resulting in a movie that could buckle under the weight of expectations but instead carves its own path.
Even when he produces an occasional under-performer (*cough* The Terminal *cough*), Spielberg’s gifts have never been in question (I’d say he’s in the running for, if not leading the pack, of greatest living American filmmakers. His confidence has only grown in recent years, especially as he’s continued to plumb the depths of war and its affects on men. After finding humanity and chivalry amidst horrors in WWI (2011’s War Horse) and detailing a pivotal moment in American history (2012’s Lincoln), he turns his considerable talents here to an even-keeled examination of the Cold War in Bridge of Spies.
Mark Rylance (re-teaming with Spielberg next year as the title character in The BFG) portrays Rudolf Abel, a placid painter whose calm demeanour hides his double-life as a Soviet spy in New York circa 1957. A French Connection-esque opening chase in a crowded subway leads to his capture, as the U.S. government seeks to punish him publicly for global espionage. The problem is that the U.S. can’t lock him and throw away the key (or worse, summarily execute him) – they need to be seen to have given him a fair trial. So they enlist the help of lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) as Abel’s defense.
Hanks’ basic humanity and sense of decency heavily inform his character. He’s not playing against type but rather leaning into the kind of a role that’s he built a titanic career off of. Donovan is introduced deep in discussion with his opponent over an insurance claim, expertly whittling away variables and presenting his point-of-view until it’s the only logical choice. Indeed that’s Donovan’s expertise – a humane and dogged pursuit of justice within the confines of the law.
Bridge of Spies takes Lincoln‘s tact of boiling down complicated legal matters into folksy tales and allegorical stories, and Spielberg allows the plot to grow to a slow simmer as Donovan’s family life becomes threatened by an enraged public that sees no point in providing a fair shake to a traitorous spy seeking to spoil the American way of life. Donovan argues Abel’s not a traitor as he’s not a U.S.-national, but is instead a loyal soldier for his home country. His defense culminates in a stirring Supreme Court speech that caps a satisfying first half of a movie that takes a turn for complexity as additional plot threads grow to fruition.
The bi-section of East and West Germany becomes a central setting for a prisoner exchange that’s to take place, as the Americans seek to leverage Abel against a captured U.S. spy pilot who went down in Soviet territory. Complicating matters is the East German’s imprisonment of a young American student that becomes an additional bargaining chip for the communist block.
It’s a thick broth that grows increasingly murky, populated by scheming CIA agents, deceptive Soviets, egotistical Germans and the innocent and not-so innocent lives caught in the balance. Hanks’ Donovan is a steady fulcrum upon which the story is balanced, never losing sight of the central conflict or growing sense of urgency and scale. At one point Donovan – acting on behalf of the U.S. government but unable to admit it – tells his Soviet counterpart that they need to have the conversation their governments can’t. Thus their small exchange of personnel takes on a global significance as it stands in for an entire conflict, one in which Western ideals clash with a communist agenda. This is underscored literally with numerous shots of the Berlin wall being erected, and the militarized zone surrounding it.
Spielberg keeps an even tone throughout, wry and understated, full of wit and telling bits of detail. A German’s subterfuge is suggested subtly while a Soviet’s deception is called out by an eagle-eyed Donovan. Politics vacillate between deadly seriousness and surprising lightness, like when Donovan suggests that the German Democratic Republic and USSR are entirely too long for country names.
For all its build, the ending of Bridge of Spies seems like mostly a foregone conclusion (further solidified by the fact that it’s a true story). Regardless, the labyrinthine and fun journey to that point is a thrilling endeavour. An overly obvious scene of Michael Bay-like flag waving during the epilogue threatens to rob the movie of some impact, but it can’t undo the masterful story that’s led to that point. Rylance is superb as Abel (often facing death or worse, his deadpan response of “Will it help?” is great) and Hanks – surely a national treasure at this point – turns in a typically great performance. Bridge of Spies rewards patience and has a satisfyingly symmetrical structure, delving into the core tenets of what it means to be American (timely!) and providing a nice capper to Spielberg’s unofficial American History Trilogy.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 141 minutes