Tom Hanks plays the (sort of) spy who came in with a cold in Steven Spielberg’s effortlessly polished and absorbing character drama whose themes, sadly, still resonate as strongly today as they did more than half a century ago.
While the canvas may not be as broad as some of his blockbuster fare, the dramatic stakes at the heart of Spielberg’s latest are high indeed.
Bridge Of Spies shares more than a passing similarity to the bearded one’s previous feature, Lincoln (2012) – both involve backroom negotiations driven by an idealist where potentially world-changing consequences pivot on their success or failure.
In this case, that responsibility falls to insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks), who takes on the defence of suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against the wishes of his wife Mary (Amy Ryan). Instead of simply going through the motions to facilitate Abel’s guilt, Donovan vigorously defends his client and marks himself out as a troublemaker by the CIA and a Soviet sympathiser by the media and wider public.
His foresight in keeping Abel away from Death Row sees him drafted in to travel to the newly walled off East Berlin in 1961 to negotiate under the radar for the exchange of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U.S pilot whose U-2 reconnaissance mission was dramatically curtailed.
For someone who has revisited World War Two so often throughout his career, it’s perhaps surprising Bridge Of Spies is Spielberg’s first Cold War movie. A desolated post-war Berlin is evocatively captured by the director and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and the chaos surrounding the erection of a wall that would remain in place for almost 30 years is both unsettling to watch and masterfully handled.
Spielberg employs subtle touches to imply a deeper meaning, such as the use of mirrors to symbolise what is both real and illusion alongside Abel’s skill as a portrait artist to present both himself – and others – in a certain light. Abel’s sniffle at the start of the film is also nicely reflected later on when Donovan develops a cold whilst in sub-zero Berlin.
The film’s themes of tolerance, fairness and what makes Americans American (an adherence to the U.S Constitution as Donovan not unreasonably sees it) draws inevitable parallels to events that continue to unfold in this turbulent century.
Donovan puts his head on the block in seeking to give Abel a fair trial arguing that, whilst his ideology may be anathema to that of most Americans, he remains “a good soldier” who is only doing what he believes to be right. Whether that sort of defence would be accepted by many in today’s society is among the many things that can be taken away from this spirited production.
Hanks, as always, delivers a highly watchable performance in a central role that could so easily have been played by Burt Lancaster or James Stewart had Bridge Of Spies been filmed some decades earlier. Aided by Joel and Ethan Coen’s polish of Matt Charman’s original script, Hanks has a blast in a part that allows him to deliver all-American dialogue with a twinkle in the eye.
As good as Hanks is, however, he’s acted off the screen by Rylance, who has been a king of the stage for many years but now appears to be increasingly transitioning to TV and film work (let’s forget his recent cheque-chasing turn in Sean Penn’s geri-action flick The Gunman though). Employing a less-is-so-much-more technique, Rylance’s quietly inquisitively body language and measured demeanour keep you transfixed as you try to work out what’s going on behind those eyes, while his scenes with Hanks are some of the best interplay you’ll see this year.
Special mention must also go to Thomas Newman’s pleasingly restrained score. So often, Spielberg’s films are ill-served by abundant soundtracks, but Newman keeps things relatively low-key and scenes are often allowed to play out without the use of a score.
Bridge Of Spies certainly won’t leave you cold and finds Spielberg, unlike his protagonist, in rude health.
I’ve noticed that when you act alongside Tom Hanks, you get nominated for an Academy Award (Barkhad Abdi, Max von Sydow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Clarke Duncan, Ed Harris, Gary Sinise, Paul Newman). Go Mark Rylance!
I think he’s a shoe in mate.
Nice review man. I really enjoyed Bridge of Spies as well, not a revolutionary picture but a strong one nevertheless. I’m glad to see a shout out for Newman’s score, its low-key vibe works very well for the film.
Thanks buddy. It’s not whizz-bang Spielberg, but I actually prefer this style of filmmaking from the guy. I look forward to his version of The BFG though!
So much restraint here most notably from Spielberg. I love how he dials it back a bit and simply tells a really good story.
Cheers Keith. This and Lincoln represent a new level for Spielberg.
Great review mate, I really loved this — one of my favourites of the year. Hanks is typically enthralling, but you’re right, Rylance is exceptional as the subdued captive. Another Spielbergian treat!
Rylance *should* be a shoe-in for an Oscar methinks. He underplays it beautifully and works perfectly opposite the slightly bigger Hanks. Thanks for the feedback buddy.
Not that I’ve seen it yet, but Sly’s gaining some momentum for Creed! If he’s better than Rylance is here, it must be an exceptional performance.
Strong review, I was very content with how this turned out and yet, somehow, I’m having trouble placing it in my Top 10. Maybe it’ll make it, maybe it won’t. But i suppose those sorts of concerns are completely irrelevant and don’t impact how I enjoyed the experience on its own.
Hey Tom, sorry (again) about the late reply. Man, I need to buck up my ideas in 2016! As you may know, I don’t bother producing Top 10 lists, but if I did it *may* sneak in there too.
Nice read mate. I still haven’t got round to seeing this but it is still playing at a cinema near me so I’lll hopefully get round to it in the next few days. I too am very happy to forget Rylance’s recent turn in The Gunman!
Appreciate that Stu. Yes, The Gunman was a real piece of crap wasn’t it?I Geri-action at its lamest.
Sadly it disappeared as soon as Star Wars came out. I think my end of year favourites will have a big Bridge of Spies gap in it unless I can catch it further afield! Ah well, worse things happen at sea and all that.
First world problems! 🙂
Haha indeed! Might start an e-petition.
An astute observation there about the music, Mark. Unlike War Horse, this one wasn’t drowned in melodrama, thank goodness. I was so impressed by Mark Rylance here, glad his performance got recognized in recent award nominations. Oh and very true about Hanks’ performance that it “… could so easily have been played by Burt Lancaster or James Stewart had Bridge Of Spies been filmed some decades earlier” He definitely has that likable ‘everyman’ quality as those classic actors.
Hey Ruth! Apparently, they were going to film a version of this 30 or so years ago that was going to star Lancaster and it would have been interesting to see that version. This one ain’t bad though!
By way of comparison, I saw a brilliant Polish movie about a spy within the ranks of the Polish military, Jack Strong. If you get the chance, give it a spin. It’s based on a true story: http://cineuropa.org/vd.aspx?t=video&l=en&rdID=252529
Thanks Michael! Haven’t even heard of Jack Strong; appreciate the recommendation. Stars Patrick Wilson too!
Rylance gave a brilliant performance, especially when you consider that he hardly had any spoken lines in the film. Very unnerving character, yet at the end I felt compelled to want to protect him (as did Donovan). This is one film you have to concentrate on, but I rate it highly and would watch it again.
Thanks for the feedback Charley. I liked Rylance’s character; as Hanks’ character described him “a good soldier”. Spielberg does this sort of thing so easily; this and Lincoln are both effortlessly great.
Nice piece. Wasn’t expecting much, but I really was moved and engrossed for the most part. Wouldn’t mind seeing this get a few nominations.
Thanks buddy. I reckon Rylance is pegged on for Best Supporting Actor. Hope Newman’s score gets nominated too.
Strong review, I know this is a movie that will interest me.
It’s classic Spielberg mate. Effortless really. Cheers for the feedback!
Spielberg is a master director, to hear that is is classic Spielberg makes me even more excited to see it.
You really should. One of the best 20 movies of 2015.
That’s high praise indeed.