Bridge of Spies feels like a very natural follow up to Lincoln for legendary director Steven Spielberg. Both films delight in the way human decency can overcome cynical politics and both take place against a backdrop of events that would change the USA forever – the Civil War for Lincoln and the Cold War for this latest effort. Simultaneously, Bridge of Spies also feels very much of a piece with the Frank Capra output of the ‘30s, a testament to the power of the heroism of the everyman, albeit tinged with a more biting sense of social commentary. Based on the real-life exploits of idealistic all-American lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), we see him first defend the ‘most hated man in America’ Colonel Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against charges of espionage. Three years after he inevitably loses the case, Donovan is then charged with exchanging the soft-spoken Russian agent, a man who somehow gets smaller when he stands up straight, for captured American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell).
It’s the most immediately visually striking film of Spielberg’s since perhaps AI, rich colours practically bleeding off the screen, made all the more vibrant by extended periods of oppressive greys as we head into Soviet territory. Early ‘60s Berlin is particularly brilliantly realised and immersive, from the sets and the costumes to the eschewing of any subtitles when German or Russian is spoken. We’re instantly as disoriented as Donovan, and it also allows a cast of actual Germans and Russians to play the Communist parts.
The casting, as with almost all of Spielberg’s films, is impeccable, from Hanks and Rylance in the leads to any one of the vast cadre of superb character actors who populate Bridge of Spies. From Alan Alda to Peter McRobbie to an admittedly underserved Amy Ryan, there’s hardly a flaw in sight in the performances. Mark Rylance, in his most high-profile film role to date, is astounding. In any other performer’s hands, Abel’s constant veneer of quiet calm could have been played as cold and distancing. Instead, Rylance finds the very warm centre of the man, allowing embers of emotion to flicker through, balancing Abel’s burgeoning respect for and good will toward Hanks’ Donovan with the need to stay an enigma. Having such a sympathetic Russian at the film’s heart also negates any potential problems that Spielberg’s penchant for patriotism may have caused, though Bridge of Spies can hardly be accused of jingoism. A speech given by Donovan to the Supreme Court could hardly be clearer in its message of denunciation for modern America’s refusal to give due process to so many of its prisoners.
James Donovan provides Tom Hanks with one of his Tom Hanks-iest roles to date. Fundamental decency and kindness hide wicked intelligence and ambition, and who better to play that than the actor known for being Hollywood’s Nicest Man? When we first meet him, he’s working as an insurance lawyer, but when the Abel case comes up, his well-known sense of duty and his experience at the Nuremberg Trials makes him the first name on the list for the alleged spy’s defense. Donovan and Abel swiftly take a liking to one another, and soon Donovan finds himself not just defending Abel as a courtesy, but going well out of his way to ensure Abel’s fair treatment. Naturally, this earns him the ire of the American public, and an anonymous attack on Donovan’s home is one of the film’s most riveting scenes.
Matt Charman’s script, polished by the Coen brothers, manages to be utterly sincere without being mawkish, and tells a serious story without being dour. Donovan’s bafflement at meeting Abel’s fake East German family and his constantly worsening cold (surely a Coen addition) provide the best laughs, and Tom Hanks Reacting to Things is basically a comedy sub-genre in itself. The shooting down of Powers’ spy plane is the only real misstep made in the film, skating too close to silly action movie territory, tonally awkward in an otherwise authentic-feeling story.
For all that Bridge of Spies is fun, and it is really is wonderfully entertaining, it never loses sight of the very real dangers it’s presenting. Berlin is a city in which life is cheap, and Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski give out continual visual reminders that the characters we’re following are, to those in charge, expendable pawns in a far larger game.
Yet, Spielberg and Charman for the most part want to do away with Realpolitik. It serves useful story functions and keeps this Cold War tale relevant with parallels to modern American foreign policy, but Bridge of Spies is a very human story. The big set-pieces are all centred around individuals who can never just fight their way out of a situation, instead having to sneak away from pursuing agents through a crowded subway, or acquiesce to the demands of a German youth gang to give them a coat. Even then, about 85 or 90 percent of the entire film is conversation, and it’s an enormous testament to all involved that this very traditional style of filmmaking can be made to feel so current and exciting.
The true story of James Donovan and Rudolf Abel is one of astonishing restraint and humanity – from Donovan’s actions in defense of the enemy colonel to the USSR’s remarkably measured response to their discovery of Francis Gary Powers’ spy mission. As such, it’s familiar thematic ground for Spielberg, and it’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker adapting this tale so enjoyably. Bridge of Spies might not have the pure magic of Spielberg’s absolute best work, but it’s still a beautifully made, sharply written, and near-perfectly acted piece of prestige cinema.