I have to say upfront that I’m a sucker for the kind of story that Bridge of Spies serves up, the kind that focuses on the one guy/gal standing up against unseen, nefarious forces for what he/she believes is right for no reason other than it’s simply the right thing to do. Bridge of Spies is that kind of movie and one of the better examples of films with a crusading hero at the forefront.
Set in the late 1950s, insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is delegated with the unenviable task of defending recently captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in court, which is all being done merely for show. Things take a turn for the unexpected though when Donovan doesn’t go along with the script and decides to push for an appeal after Abel is found guilty due to the lack of proper procedure used in nailing him. Donovan is the lighthouse of morals in the film, standing firm in his beliefs that at the very least, the man deserves to have a fair trial and not one where America’s values are compromised in the face of swift justice to appease an increasingly agitated and paranoid public demanding Abel be strung up. Donovan gets the appeal and is promptly thrown under the bus (or bridge, if that works better for you) by not just his peers but the American public, becoming a pariah of sorts and getting his windows shot out, as always seems to be the case with these kind of people. Stand up for the right thing and we’re gonna fuck up your house.
Things get further complicated when a spy of America’s own gets captured after a recon plane is shot down while on a top-secret mission. At the same time, an American exchange student in Germany is taken in on suspicion of being a communist spy. This all leads to the CIA stepping in and getting Donovan involved once again with Abel’s tricky situation, this time to negotiate a trade between the American, Russian and German governments to bring the Americans home in exchange for Abel. It’s all murky, convoluted stuff that’s somewhat tough to follow if you’re not paying attention, but it all really just comes down to a battle of egos and the manipulation of public perception to save face and not look like a bunch of assholes who just happen to be in charge. Just like the face of politics today!
Spielberg delivers a quaint film that has all the necessary beats a move of this type should have. It’s a loving callback to 70’s era filmmaking. Dialogue takes center stage here, and the script by Matt Charman, writing alongside Ethan and Joel Coen, is filled with with great, natural dialogue and a sense of purpose that drives the film forward to its exciting conclusion.
The acting in this film is uniformly excellent, which turns out to be a very good thing as the film is almost entirely dialogue driven with very little action. Thankfully, just about every performance is magnetic and there are a surprising number of laughs in the film. Hanks was born to play this sort of role, and his performance as Donovan comes off as effortless and completely engaging while retaining that signature Hanks charm. Rylance as Abel is an absolute gem in this. He grabs you and demands that you focus your attention on him whenever he’s on screen. The wordplay between him and Hanks is the soul of the film and one of the key reasons to watch.
The film looks gorgeous, at times combining the shaky, documentary camera nature of Schindler’s List with the stark, beautiful period stylings of later era Spielberg films like Munich and Catch Me If You Can. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski goes above and beyond what’s expected of him, creating images that bounce off the screen and look quite literally like living paintings. Bridge of Spies is an absolutely stunning looking film and one that does a fantastic job of transporting you back in time to a long gone era.
About the only thing I found strange was the realization that the film wasn’t scored by John Williams, but rather a very capable Thomas Newman. Kind of sad in a way that we’re nearing the end of the Spielberg/Williams legacy, but, as we all know, all good things come to an end at some point.
Bridge of Spies may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with Spielberg behind the wheel and the always dependable Hanks riding shotgun, it winds up being a gorgeous and well-acted Cold War era spy tale.