For the better part of four decades Steven Spielberg has amazed audiences with the likes of Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park. But beyond his blockbusters he’s also excelled with personal dramas like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Lincoln. His latest, Bridge of Spies, again finds the filmmaker fascinated with history as he crafts a Cold War drama where legal intrigue begets a cloak-and-dagger game of back room handshakes in brokering deals in which humans, not money, are exchanged. Based on a true story about an insurance lawyer that is approached by the government to represent a Soviet spy on trial and later as a go-between in secret meetings to negotiate a prisoner exchange, Bridge of Spies is a shining example of Spielberg’s skills as a director. It may not be top-tier level, but “good Spielberg” is better than most films.
When Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York, his incarceration is just a formality. Enter James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a former criminal lawyer and Nuremberg prosecutor, who is working insurance law. He’s approached to represent Abel. Donovan takes the case, even though he knows it is a no-win and will most assuredly make him the subject of ridicule by those who view his actions as being un-American. Donovan’s plea to grant clemency and spare Abel the death penalty was an astute move; the spy’s value as a political pawn could help if an American soldier was ever captured by Soviets. Such is the case with Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of a U-2 spy plane. Donovan’s services are once again requested, only this time it is to negotiate a prisoner exchange in Berlin. Seems simple enough: Abel for Powers. Though there’s a small wrinkle. Donovan also wants an American student who was taken into custody while crossing into East Berlin as the infamous wall is being erected.
Bridge of Spies, though a story of the Cold War, has themes and actions that carry over to the present. The fearmongering and seismic split in political ideologies we have today, and what looks to tear the nation asunder, is not unlike the American perception of the Red Scare of the 1950s, where the government looked to weed out the card-carrying members of the Communist Party. For Spielberg’s picture, the central drama isn’t about the Cold War at all, it is about James Donovan and his morality. Here is a man who loves his country, his wife, his family. He is responsible and follows the letter of the law, something that is a frivolous impropriety to those around him. The bond he forges with Abel isn’t meant as a heartfelt well-he-isn’t-such-a-bad-guy subplot. There’s a friendship, an admiration that goes beyond politics, beyond national ties. Taking on a case involving a foreign spy leaves him convicted in the court of public opinion, while Donovan’s own convictions are at war. This first half leads to a second half where Donovan is bullish, looking for redemption in an even more hostile environment.
Matt Charman, in his only second feature screen credit, drafts a solid story that is aided by Joel and Ethan Coen, brothers who know a thing or two when it comes to writing, having won a pair of screenplay Oscars to go with several more nominations. Their blueprint are the only instructions Spielberg needs. The master filmmaker aesthetically pleases in a period piece but doesn’t deal with cliched representations of Communism – like what we got with Trumbo. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime Spielberg collaborator, deftly uses place and environment; the opening scene is among the film’s highlights: a near wordless ten-minute spell with Rudolf Abel going about his day in 1960s Brooklyn. Kamiński’s photography and the production design of East and West Berlin are also noteworthy.
One would expect that if Bridge of Spies were actually made during the Cold War, Jimmy Stewart would have been James Donovan. So it goes without question that Tom Hanks dons the suit and tie perfectly as Stewart would in the lead (there’s a reason these two have been compared for a reason). In a cinematic universe, Donovan is probably a distant cousin to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s Jefferson Smith, only less idealistic and more matter-of-fact. Hanks may be the lead but the acting MVP is British actor Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Supporting characters are often most memorable and Abel’s small role is solid, and when he engenders himself and breaks his silence it usually gives way to a simple three-word rebuttal that is perfect contrast to Donovan’s own plight.
Bridge of Spies gets strong marks in the A/V department as per usual with Disney’s output. Shot on film, the transfer accentuates the details of Janusz Kamiński’s photography and the finer details of the Brooklyn and Berlin settings, not to mention the clothing (tailored suits and neckties, winter coats, et al.). Carrying a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless soundtrack, the speakers with burst with the cacophony of Brooklyn (sounds of trains, the clacking of shoes on floor, ringing phones). No expense was spared – even the buzzing of a fluorescent light can be audibly heard. Dialogue is mostly in the center speaker while Thomas Newman’s score envelops a wide range.
The high technical marks can’t extend to the special features and extras. The Blu-ray includes four featurettes. The longest is a “A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies.” This piece runs nearly 18 minutes and begins with Spielberg’s family history with the real life events as depicted in the film and follows SOP with comments from the cast and crew as they discuss the politics and history of the time, espionage and intelligence gathering and depictions of Americans Francis Gary Powers and Frederic Pryor.
“Berlin 1961: Re-Creating the Divide” (11:35) has the cast and crew discussing the history of the Berlin Wall.
“U-2 Spy Plane” (8:45) explores the history of the aircraft and its role.
“Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act” (5:42) is a cursory overview of the historical details of the prisoner exchange in the film’s final minutes and shooting the sequence in Berlin.
Bridge of Spies may be second-tier Spielberg, but middle of the road Spielberg is better than the output of most filmmakers. An expert craftsman at this point in his career, Spielberg seems to have taken a liking to nuance, not spectacle when it comes to the projects he’s selected as of late. Classic contemporary period piece with some shades of noir when the story crosses into Germany, Bridge of Spies may be worth more than a single glance. Easy to enjoy on the initial viewing, this is a grounded work of a moment in recent history that you won’t learn about in school.
Disney/Buena Vista presents Bridge of Spies. Screenplay by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance. Run Time: 141 minutes. Rated PG-13. Released: February 2, 2016.
Tags: Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks