Directed by: Stephen Spielberg
Written by: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
A morally upright and headstrong lawyer is caught up in Cold War espionage in the latest picture from the ever-present Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies. It’s also yet another impressive film from the seemingly immortal director, one of the few surviving members of a group of revolutionary filmmakers born out of the 1970s and of whom, though certainly having missed the mark a few times, one could never say has fell into a slump at any point in his career.
After a Soviet spy is captured by the CIA, the US government calls upon James B. Donovan, a seasoned business lawyer played by longtime Spielberg collaborator Tom Hanks, to give him fair representation in trial (and help make the United States look good). Accepting the offer is no simple decision as the task is akin to advocating on behalf of a witch in 1690’s Salem, but Donovan dutifully assumes responsibility and is at once embroiled in complex Cold War politics, treading deeper and deeper into territory well over his head.
Donovan’s moral compass is resolute, a sort of Atticus Finch for the communist pig fighting 1950’s McCarthyism in lieu of racism, and indeed the film’s first act plays out quite similarly to Harper Lee’s novel, albeit with slightly less black-and-white ethical dilemmas. Unlike Tom Robinson, Donovan’s client isn’t a mockingbird minding his own business but a highly skilled and dangerous man unquestionably guilty of the crimes for which he stands trial. In spite of all of this, Donovan is still keenly aware of the “right thing to do” and is bullheaded enough to keep anyone from stopping him from doing it no matter how perilous the conditions become. This sort of goody-two-shoes nature would generally induce groans from the audience (and it does from many of the film’s characters), but a smart script and humourous script that respects the audience’s intelligence paired with a superb performance from Hanks makes the character not only believable but remarkably human and relatable. In the face of the recent trend of ethically-embattled antihero protagonists being hailed as a beacon of realistic humanity, this feels pretty refreshing.
Bridge of Spies is also a compelling example of the atmospheric achievements possible when a director and cinematographer are perfectly in sync, which comes as no surprise as Janusz Kaminski resumes DoP duties on his 14th Spielberg production. This is at it’s best in the film’s opening scene, a thrillingly understated chase after the Soviet spy by CIA operatives that captures tension, confusion, claustrophobia, and wit through choice camera angles. Elsewhere, the film feels appropriately 50’s through a strikingly noir presentation, blending starkly bright lights with gloomy shadows and silhouettes. At times I felt like I was watching a colour version of The Third Man. If anything detracts from the presentation, it’s that a bit of J.J. Abrams seems to be rubbing off on Spielberg now – a little too much digital lens flare here for my taste.
Mark Rylance’s performance as the spy in question, Rudolf Abel. Rylance gives the character an air of mystery and otherworldliness, making us question the facade and wonder who the real man hidden behind it is. At the same time, Abel is quintessentially human, personable, and friendly in a genuine way, allowing us to understand the sympathy and even camaraderie that Donovan feels for him. This humanisation of the enemy is vital and the heart of the film, something essential that we all need to remember even in the face of our modern-day villains.
The film is ultimately by no means groundbreaking or revelatory. I didn’t leave the cinema with the same feeling of having to collect my jaw off the floor as other Spielberg pictures like Munich or Saving Private Ryan. Bridge of Spies is simply the work of a filmmaker capable of telling compelling stories who knows his craft inside out. At this point, Spielberg is like my cinematic grandfather weaving together narratives of yesteryear. Some of his stories are better than others, but even his less-magnificent yarns are often strikingly engaging. Bridge of Spies is bold and harmless, a satisfying experience contained within itself that, while doubtfully will be remembered as one of its director’s best, remains the mark of a filmmaker who, after all these years, still very much knows what he’s doing.