The ads for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies try to make it look like a dreadfully important movie, one that can be pushed during awards season. But the truth is that, while it’s based on a true story, it’s not a terribly important movie, at least in the sense that it’s dutiful and dull. Rather, it moves with the grace and skill of an expert thriller, filled with vivid details and emotionally resonant moments.
Tom Hanks has given his share of Oscar-worthy performances, but his James B. Donovan, insurance lawyer, seems like a fairly normal guy. He doesn’t require any accents or makeup. It could be Hanks on his day off. What happens is that, during the Cold War in the early 1960s, Donovan’s office is charged with defending an accused Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (a great Mark Rylance); it’s not a glamorous job, and it’s one that guarantees Donovan a certain amount of heat, but it’s necessary to make it look as if the bad guys get a fair trial.
The problem is that Donovan actually does want to give Abel a fair trial (the two men have some heartfelt conversations in Abel’s cell). Spielberg effortlessly allows us to feel sympathy for Abel, even though we clearly see him doing spy stuff and being an enemy of America. Eventually, though he loses the case, Donovan convinces the judge not to execute Abel, but rather to imprison him in the event that they need him to exchange for any American prisoners on the other side. Lo and behold that eventuality comes to be, when pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) goes down over enemy territory; he was flying a top secret spy plane taking photos from the air.
The Russians also capture an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who is in Berlin writing a thesis. At first the enemy wants to offer up Pryor instead of Powers, but that’s a mistake. Donovan decides that he will only settle for one possible trade: Abel for both Pryor and Powers. He will have to use all his best negotiating and lawyering skills to pull this off.
The movie does consist of a great many sitting-in-a-room-and-talking scenes, though, thankfully, many of these are written by none other than Joel and Ethan Coen. Their unique, rhythmic dialogue can often be heard from underneath Spielberg’s most meticulous camera placements, and it’s a delight. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that a third writer, Matt Charman, is in the mix and you can almost hear when the Coens’ writing ends and Charman’s begins, and vice-versa.
But Spielberg always knows where to place his camera, and he gets subtle shifts of power during these otherwise static scenes. Offers of drinks, or a cold that Hanks sustains when his coat is stolen, are used as unbalancing techniques, adding unspoken tension to these scenes. However, there are a few, more exciting scenes as well, including Abel’s capture, Powers’ harrowing plane crash, and Donovan trying to get around Berlin without being arrested, shot, or worse. Donovan also has trouble back in the States, where CIA agents stalk him and try to get him to throw in the towel on the Abel case.
Some of the action takes place during the construction of the Berlin wall, complete with the history lesson behind it; it’s a powerful sight, disquieting and humbling. There’s a mirrored shot as Donovan rides a train, once in Berlin and once in America. In Berlin, people are shot for climbing over a wall, and in America, children play doing the same. Spielberg is reminding us that, yes, we are the good guys, but we have the potential to behave badly. Giving an enemy spy an unfair trial was something that our worst enemies would do, and something that we might hope they wouldn’t do. Donovan is a hero because he’s an American, but also because he sees the value in humanity.
Spielberg fills the cast with actors who were largely unknown to me, although the wonderful Amy Ryan plays Donovan’s wife, and Alan Alda plays his boss. Englishman Mark Rylance is an amazing actor who stood out earlier this year in the Sean Penn action movie The Gunman, and is perhaps better known for his stage career. The director gets great work out of his usual collaborators, editor Michael Kahn and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who highlights the faultless art direction with a kind of wintry air. Thomas Newman has stepped in for John Williams to compose the score, and the result is enormously effective.
I’m loving this current stage of Spielberg’s career. He has made great films all along, and perhaps some of his earlier films are better than some of his more recent ones. But since 2001, he seems far more confident, and totally unconcerned with box office or awards. 21st century movies like A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, War of the Worlds, Munich, The Adventures of Tintin, and Lincoln show an artist totally in command of his medium, but with an easy touch; his films are very watchable. (He’s the only possible heir apparent to John Ford.) He seems to be making films to please himself, which is a wonderful thing. And Bridge of Spies must please him a great deal.
With Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, Billy Magnussen, Austin Stowell, Domenick Lombardozzi, Michael Gaston, Sebastian Koch, Marko Caka, Noah Schnapp, Dakin Matthews, Ashlie Atkinson, Will Rogers
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by Steven Spielberg
PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language
October 16, 2015