Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring: Tom Hanks (James B. Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Dakin Matthews (Judge Byers), Scott Shepherd (Hoffman), Mikhail Gorevoy (Ivan Schischkin), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Burghart Klaußner (Harald Ott), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Eve Hewson (Jan Donovan), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Greg Nutcher (Lieutenant James), Peter McRobbie (Allen Dulles), Jesse Plemons (Joe Murphy), Will Rogers (Frederic Pryor), Nadja Bobyleva (Katje).
In many ways, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a throwback – many have already evoked Frank Capra when speaking of the film, and that’s not a bad place to start, as the film is very clearly about American idealism, and you really have no trouble seeing Capra directing something like this years ago, with his frequent leading man James Stewart (even if, the lead character here seems to be slightly more in the Henry Fonda vein, than Stewart – but I digress). But as Mark Harris’ excellent book Five Came Back correctly pointed out, Capra’s politics were often muddled and confusing in his films, in a way that Spielberg’s never are. Like Spielberg’s best films of the last decade – Munich (2005) and Lincoln (2012), Bridge of Spies is a movie about the past that also comments on the present. While the story of a lawyer defending a Soviet spy isn’t a direct comparison to America’s present War on Terror, there are similarities there, as it often seems like the main character is the only one who really wants to abide by the Constitution – everyone else simply wants to look like they are. For Spielberg, ideals are always worth fighting for – it’s more important than anything else really, because if America gives up what it makes it special to protect itself, then what are they fighting for?
The film opens with a masterful, near wordless sequence that follows Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) on his daily routine in New York City – exiting his apartment, taking the subway, doing some painting on a bench, and then heading home. He is being tailed this whole time by the FBI as a suspected Soviet spy. Spielberg doesn’t play games here – Abel is guilty, we see him get something from underneath the bench he sits on to do his painting, and then destroy it later when the FBI barges into his apartment. Abel isn’t anyone’s idea of a Soviet spy though – he is soft spoken, often bemused, and has an English accent. The Feds come to James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who once worked with the Prosecution in the Nuremberg trials. They want to show the world that even Soviet spies get a good defense in America, so Donovan is offered the job. What no one expects Donovan to do is actually defend Abel – and there are many scenes where Donovan comes into direct conflict with the judge (Dakin Matthews) as he argues for his motions that the judge doesn’t want to hear. That’s the first half of the film – the second is what happens when an American spy pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is shot down over the Soviet Union and captured. Both sides are worried about their guy talking – so perhaps a prisoner exchange can be arranged. The Soviets are open to talk about – in East Berlin – and so are the Americans, but they don’t want to be seen negotiating, so once again they reach out to Donovan.
Spielberg is so a famous and celebrated director, that sometimes I think he’s strangely underrated. This is a film, much like Lincoln, in which most of the action consists on men in various rooms talking – negotiating, arguing, etc. – and Spielberg manages to make it all incredibly tense. There are a few masterful sequences that exist outside of those rooms – the previously mentioned opening sequence for example, or another that takes us along the Berlin Wall as it is being constructed that are wonderfully constructed, but for the most part Spielberg keeps us in those rooms, with an insurance lawyer with a cold, as he negotiates. Hanks, like Spielberg, can sometimes be underrated because he makes everything look so easy – his first scene, in which he negotiates with a lawyer about a settlement over drinks, tells us everything we need to know about the type of person and lawyer Donovan is – he is confident, well-spoken, and can argue the law. He is perhaps alone among his contemporaries in being able to pull off this sort of role – and he does it all without seeming to try. Mark Rylance is perhaps even better as Rudolf Abel – he remains calm throughout, watching what happens with a bemused grin. He isn’t the villain of the piece – as Donovan argues, he isn’t even a traitor, since he isn’t an American, how can he possibly betray it? He injects humor into the movie, when it is needed, and matches Hanks’ ability to deliver a great performance without seeming to try.
It should go without saying that the film is impeccably crafted – from Spielberg’s longtime collaborators like Janusz Kaminski’s expert cinematography, draining the color out of many of the scenes, to Michael Kahn’s editing, that manages to keep the pace from flagging, and the tension up, to the perfect period detail of the art direction and costume design – and Thomas Newman’s score (the first time since The Color Purple way back in 1985 a Spielberg score was not written by John Williams) are first rate. The screenplay was co-written by the Coen Brothers, and it’s amusing to think of how they would have directed the film (there are a few scenes, in particular one where a CIA man comes in to brief the pilots of the new spy planes where you know the Coen’s would have found more the absurd humor in the scene that Spielberg does – even while keeping the same dialogue).That Bridge of Spies doesn’t quite enter the top echelon of Spielberg’s films is perhaps understandable – that’s a high bar to clear. Yet other than the fact that the film casts the wonderful Amy Ryan as Hanks’ wife, and then doesn’t absolutely nothing with her, there isn’t really anything wrong with Bridge of Spies either. For a film about American idealism and patriotism, from Steven Spielberg no less, the film is curiously understated – which I think works in its favor, even if that means the film lacks those one or two big moments Spielberg’s films often have. For most directors, Bridge of Spies would be a triumph – one of their best – and the fact that it doesn’t quite get there for Spielberg is more a testament to how good his best can be, rather than highlighting anything wrong with this film.