Steven Spielberg has always found himself on the creative spectrum somewhere between Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock; nowhere is that more evident than in his latest, Bridge of Spies. The film finds him channeling his inner Capra and Hitchcock in equal measure, and the result is often electric. Tom Hanks fits perfectly into the role of Spielberg’s Jimmy Stewart, the honest All-American determined to do the right thing amidst treacherous and often confusing circumstances. While the film occasionally slips into the mode of a stuffy history lesson, Bridge of Spies is never less than the work of master craftsmen still operating at the top of their game.
Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a fever pitch in the early 1960s, with spies on both sides relaying sensitive information. Bridge of Spies opens with the arrest of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). His appointed lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), fights tooth and nail for Abel to get a fair trial in the US, not because Donovan has Communist ties, but because he believes wholeheartedly in the authority of the Constitution. After American reconnaissance pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russian airspace, the CIA sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner transfer; Powers for Abel. This simple negotiation becomes strained when the East Germans capture American graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) trying to cross the newly built Berlin Wall. The East Germans want Abel for Pryor; the Soviets want Abel for Powers. Donovan must find a way for everyone to get what they want without sparking a global firestorm.
Less a spy thriller than the trailers might suggest, Bridge of Spies plays out largely as a series of conversations; two men, locked in a room, discussing inherently dangerous circumstances. This structure goes a bit stale after 140 minutes, but Matt Charman’s script (reworked by Joel and Ethan Coen) makes nearly every scene count for something. The first act finds a kinship emerge between Donovan and Abel. Both recognizes the other as a man of conviction, and that professional courtesy blooms into an unlikely friendship. Later, the Coens’ dialogue turns the situation in East Berlin into something downright Kafkaesque. Donovan arrives to discover a bleak, claustrophobic nightmare with no right answers and fewer positive outcomes.
It seems as though Bridge of Spies takes too much time getting around to the actual plot, but then Spielberg makes the opening act the moral linchpin of the entire story. The trial of Rudolf Abel represents the entire rest of the film in miniature, with a dramatic arc centered around the impact the trial has on Donovan, his wife (Amy Ryan) and their children. Donovan agrees that Abel should stand trial for his role as an enemy combatant; there’s no question about that. All the same, he believes his client deserves a fair trial because, as he sees it, that’s the only way to prove the Americans more righteous than the Soviets. In an impassioned speech before the Supreme Court, Donovan asks, “Will we stand by our cause less resolutely than he stands by his?” Spielberg uses Donovan’s actual speech from a 1960 Supreme Court hearing to make a larger point about America’s foreign policy. Are we okay with our government treating enemy combatants like animals? Is this what we want our legacy to be? Spielberg would never directly wag his finger at the audience, so instead he has Tom Hanks do it. As Tom Hanks goes, so goes the country.
Bridge of Spies is unquestionably at its best later on, where Spielberg seems to finally find a setting that brings out his playful side. The film is slow to bring us to East Berlin, but once it does, the tension ratchets up as the talks between Donovan and the Soviet and German bureaucrats begin to break down. Donovan navigating hazy streets and dingy meeting rooms are the closest the film gets to becoming an out-and-out spy thriller. Hanks and his co-stars may be discussing something as mundane and circuitous as “whose guy is whose,” but Spielberg never misses an opportunity to photograph these conversations through window panes or the bars of a prison cell. These people could not be more ideologically divided, and Spielberg lets us know it.
At the end of the day, Bridge of Spies may only appeal to a certain cross-section of filmgoers. If you find the political machinations of the Cold War fascinating, and the 1960s era in particular, then you shouldn’t hesitate to see this film. Fans of either Spielberg or the Coens should definitely see it, if only to see how masters can take even the most leaden of material and make it sing. If, by some strange chance, you fall outside of those two demographics… Well, I hear there’s a pretty good gothic romance in theaters right now…
Liked This? Share It!