Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Time: 2 hours 21 minute
by Jericho Cerrona
There's something reassuringly quaint about Steven Spielberg's latest Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies. Truthfully, even touting the film as a thriller in the traditional sense is a bit of a stretch, as this decidedly old-fashioned Hollywood picture never panders to the audience with cheap sensation or manufactured set-pieces. There are shadowy figures lurking in the rain and even a wordless opening foot chase, but the film is more interested in the melding of John Le Carré-esque intrigue with Frank Capra-influenced Americana. Aided by a screenplay from Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Cohen, Bridge of Spies simply presents an engaging story in an efficiently engaging manner, dispensing information mostly through dialogue, behavior, and atmosphere. Always the optimist, Spielberg can't help but showcase the fight for America's intrinsic values as a noble endeavor spearheaded mostly by a New York attorney played by America's favorite everyman Tom Hanks, but there's still modern resonance to the fact-based story here.
In keeping with it's reassuring quality, Bridge of Spies taps into a feeling we so rarely get in cinema anymore; that sense of an American narrative told from a distinctly American perspective from one of our last reigning populist American filmmakers. This makes the film, which tonally feels closer to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than Spielberg's own jaunty period caper Catch Me If You Can (also co-starring Hanks), something of a welcome surprise in an environment dominated by low attention spans and a binge-watching mentality when it comes to content. The film follows the plight of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a British-born Soviet spy who is arrested by American authorities (envisioned by Spielberg and regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski in a brilliant opening sequence) and his interactions with James Donovan (Hanks), the lawyer who believes that even a spy deserves a fair trial under the U.S. Constitution. Of course, there's opposition from Donovan's inner circle; including a fellow attorney played by Alan Alda and his wife, portrayed by an underused Amy Ryan, but the clear antagonist here isn't the Soviets per se, but rather, American paranoia engendered by the looming threat of thermonuclear war. Spielberg captures the fear and panic gripping the country during those "Red Scare" years economically; such as a sequence at a school where children watch an instructional video and a brief scene between Donovan and his young son. These moments are inextricably woven into the overarching narrative of a man who firmly believes that Abel, whom he comes to admire over the course of their meetings in confinement together, is better off being spared from execution since he could be used diplomatically if an American was ever to be captured by the Soviets.
Though the film's first two acts focus mainly on Donovan's attempts at saving Abel's life through constitutional discourse and the legal system, things shift into more espionage territory in the final third after American pilot Gary Powers (a square-jawed Austin Stowell) is shot down over the Soviet Union and thrown into prison. Additionally, after an American student (Will Rogers) finds himself captured on the wrong side of the newly built Berlin Wall, Donovan is sent over to negotiate a prisoner exchange which would also include Abel being released back into Soviet hands. Wisely, Spielberg sticks to the murky complications of negotiations between men in dark rooms, and much like he did in his dialogue-driven film Lincoln, favors intellectual grey areas over audience-pleasing bombast. Honestly, there were a few instances where Lincoln showcased Spielberg's tendency towards sentimentality (most notably through John Williams's over-insistent score), but here, he mostly resists emotional manipulation. Firstly, Williams is nowhere to be found, replaced by composer Thomas Newman, whose old-fashioned score is used sparingly. In fact, large stretches go by without music at all; reveling in the silent pauses during tense conversations and focusing mainly on the sparse, though dense, storytelling. Never one for subtlety, there certainly are a few times Spielberg falls prey to his worst instincts; such as a scene between lovers being separated at the Berlin Wall and a late information reveal involving Donovan's clueless family, but overall, one of the film's reigning virtues is it's surprising restraint.
Hanks is ideally cast as Donovan; able to portray a certain kind of all-American decency without lapsing into sentimental dopiness, and his everyman quality is further enhanced by the screenplay's sharp dialogue and dry humor. Perhaps because of the Coen Brothers's involvement, the writing here is unusually comedic for such serious subject matter, and Spielberg deftly handles the tonal shifts without things ever veering too far in one direction. The film isn't going for the typical "Oscar bait" mode of self-seriousness one might assume, nor is it relying too much on quirk or comedic banter, either. Instead, it successfully channels the historical era using atmosphere, dialogue, and tension without ever feeling like a stuffy history lesson in the process. Meanwhile, though Hanks remains the audience surrogate, the heart of the picture belongs to Rylance, a well-respected English actor who embodies Abel with a sly intelligence and deadpan wit. His scenes with Hanks inside the prison cell are highlights, and when Spielberg's steady camera slowly pushes in on Abel in that particularly Spielbergian manner we all recognize, we marvel at Rylance's uncanny way of making a scripted monologue feel so authentic.
Bridge of Spies is a film for adults (no, not that kind), and will probably appeal mostly to middlebrow audiences alive during the timeline of the events depicted. Still, as reductive as that viewpoint sounds, there's something novel about one of our most respected escapist filmmakers withholding his obvious desire to thrill audiences with special effects wizardry and sentimental heart-tugging by bringing us a handsomely-mounted film for adults. Spielberg could have easily given us car chases, rip-roaring spy action, and as proven by his underrated drama Munich, stomach-turning violence, but he resists such easy impulses. Ultimately, this is a film that both reflects the past as well as mirrors the present. Though the shadow of the Cold War is long in the rear view, the moral questions that time period raised are still at the heart of the American experience today. As such, Bridge of Spies is an important film without ever announcing it's importance; something crafted by a master which never feels superficially masterful. It is, despite some minor flaws, something of a miracle in a cinematic landscape littered with superheroes, comic book villains, and YA-approved franchises.