Steven Spielberg | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & India / English, German & Russian | 12 / PG-13
Steven Spielberg’s true-story Cold War drama stars Tom Hanks as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, who is tapped to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). After Donovan insists on doing his job properly, he manages to spare Abel the death penalty — which comes in handy when the Soviets capture spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and a prisoner exchange is suggested, which the Russians want Donovan to negotiate.
The most striking aspect of Bridge of Spies is how much it’s a mature, equanimous work. It would be easy to take a tale like this, fraught with issues of patriotism and the threat of foreign agents operating on domestic soil (which therefore screams “topical relevance!”), and give in to the same histrionics that some of the supporting characters demonstrate. Indeed, a director like Spielberg — oft criticised for the vein of sentimentality that is ever-present, and sometimes dominating, in his movies — might be expected to err in that direction, even if it was only slightly. The film itself manages to maintain the same calm demeanour as its two headline performances, however.
Don’t misconstrue that as meaning it’s a boring watch, however. Far from it. Despite its fairly lengthy running time, Bridge of Spies actually rattles through events, at times to a surprising degree: Abel’s trial is practically glossed over. In some respects this is an intelligent decision — the verdict is a foregone conclusion, and there’s far more going on than the trial of one spy — but it is a little jarring to have it so abruptly skipped past. The same effect occurs when Donovan appeals to the Supreme Court, a process so rushed its inclusion feels merited only by it being an event that happened so has to be there, rather than because it was a part of the story that interested Spielberg or screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen.
If we’re talking storytelling oddities, another is the manner in which Powers’ backstory is integrated. As Donovan continues to defend Abel, the film suddenly becomes subjected to scattered interjections, in which we see pilots being selected and then trained to fly secret reconnaissance missions in a new kind of plane. Any viewer who has read the blurb will know where this is going, but it’s so disconnected to the rest of the narrative that it felt misplaced, at least to me. The same is true when we suddenly meet Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student in Berlin who’s mistaken for a spy and arrested by the East. It turns out we need to know about him because Donovan attempts to use his negotiations to get a two-for-one deal, exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. Knowing the stories of the men Donovan will be negotiating for is not a bad point, but I can’t help but feel there was a smoother way to integrate them into the film’s overall narrative.
These clunks aside, Bridge of Spies is certainly a quality film. Spielberg’s direction is restrained, with familiar directorial flourishes severely limited (one very Spielbergian moment in the film’s coda sticks out precisely because of its Spielbergianness after 130 minutes of that not happening). That’s not to say his work is characterless, merely unobtrusive. The same is certainly true of Rylance’s Oscar-winning performance as the Soviet spy, so much so that some have asserted he was doing nothing at all and didn’t deserve any awards for it. Well, anyone at all familiar with Rylance’s oeuvre knows that can’t be true. His Abel is unquestionably understated, a calm and quiet man who only hints at emotions under the surface rather than declaiming them. A lesser film would’ve made a point of this — would’ve had Hanks’ lawyer struggling to understand and relate to his client’s low-key nature — but, instead, Donovan is a man who can identify with this mode of being, at least to an extent. There’s a reason they talk a couple of times about the ‘stoikiy muzhik’.
If the first part of the narrative belongs to Rylance, Hanks is in charge for the second, when Donovan finds himself in a wintery Berlin as the wall is being constructed, flitting between East and West as the go-between for a Russian spy posing as a diplomat, a German lawyer, and the CIA, who could care less about retrieving a lowly student when a pilot who might spill secrets is at stake. Also without being showy, Hanks is able to navigate a story that may be about secret international diplomacy, but which requires comedy without blatant mugging, and clever legal negotiation without grandstanding. Throughout the film, he creates in Donovan an upstanding, honourable, kind-hearted, and admirable human being, without the movie needing to make a song and dance about showing us how wonderful he is.
I may, on reflection, or re-watching, consider Bridge of Spies an even better film than I do now. Hanks and Rylance both offer nuanced performances, while Spielberg’s mastery of technique allows the whole film to be equally as subtle, even as it remains gripping and entertaining. However, the storytelling quirks are a mixed success, the pace they sometimes lend offset by the almost non sequitur style of the captured Americans’ backstories. Nonetheless, this is a classy but still enjoyable dramatic thriller, which takes a seat among Spielberg’s better works.
Bridge of Spies is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and the rest, in the UK today.