This review covers a film about historical events, but we’ll keep it spoiler-free up to the point of what has already been seen in the trailer.
Some have described Steven Spielberg’s latest, Bridge Of Spies, as a B-side entry to his filmography. If we were to agree with that, it would sincerely be in a good way. This is as good as anything he’s made in the last decade and while we know that the B-side comparison is meant to say that this might not crack your top 10 Spielberg films list in years to come, this is one of the best of the year even if it may be considered a minor work next to something like Schindler’s List.
The comparison is kind of local too, as the most obvious A-side to this one would be his most recent film before it, Lincoln, which followed the US President fostering bi-partisan negotiations that would lead to the abolition of slavery.
Bridge Of Spies also dramatises real-life back-channelling and political machinations, but takes place in the strictures of an old-fashioned spy movie about an American everyman. Also, in the most natural casting choice in the world, Spielberg casts Tom Hanks as that everyman, who is also an unimpeachable moral authority.
The film begins not with this unlikely hero, but with Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who has comfortably ensconced himself in New York when the FBI finally catch up with him. Abel confesses, but refuses to work for the government and refuses to sell out his country for freedom, so the government pushes to try him for treason and send him to the electric chair.
Enter James B. Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn who is judged to have the wherewithal to give Abel nothing more or less than “a capable defence”. However, Donovan’s ethical duty and faith in the US Constitution compels him to fight Abel’s corner as hard as he can. Treason is punishable by death, but his contention is that Abel is not an American citizen and thus cannot commit treason against the United States.
His defence is massively unpopular with the public, but it becomes of vital importance when America suddenly has a pressing need for leverage in the Cold War. An experimental US spy plane has been shot down over Soviet airspace and the pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) has been captured. Meanwhile in East Berlin, the Stasi have apprehended an American student, Frederic Pryor, (Will Rogers) trying to cross the Berlin Wall, (then a work-in-progress.) Given Donovan’s gumption, he is selected as an unofficial broker for the US government and sent to Germany in order to negotiate a trade – Abel for one of the two prisoners.
The real Donovan’s account of this incident, Strangers On A Bridge: The Case Of Francis Gary Powers & Rudolf Abel, was almost adapted into a film back in 1965, starring Alec Guinness as a Soviet spy and Gregory Peck as the lawyer tasked with defending him in court. MGM backed out of making the film because of the sensitive political baggage of the time, something which has hardly stopped studios and filmmakers making movies about relatively current affairs in the modern era.
But the story has finally made it to the screen in Bridge Of Spies and this aborted project played on my mind.
Watching it now, it feels like it might have been on Spielberg’s mind too. It’s well within the director’s wheelhouse to make a good old-fashioned film of this calibre, and that’s just what he does. But in addition to the mature tone, he cast Hanks, one of the only actors currently working who could essay the kind of four-square righteousness that pre -‘decline of American values’ stars like Peck or James Stewart could.
Hanks is such an icon in and of himself, now well on his way past the ‘America’s older brother’ stage of his career and into dad territory, that it sometimes feels as if he could have done this in his sleep. But he’s constantly present and persuasive and he’s the biggest, most obvious reason why the film works as well as it does. It feels as if there is nobody alive who could have played this role, except for Tom Hanks.
But Rylance absolutely stands toe-to-toe with him in the supporting stakes. His Abel isn’t merely deadpan, he is ice-cool and almost chameleonic. The actor has typically favoured stage work over his more recent screen roles, but his work here is much like you’d imagine Guinness would have played it – completely in command of the camera for every frame in which he appears without a single showy outburst. Almost everybody else that Donovan meets is a complete arsehole, but it’s easy to find yourself rooting for the understated Abel to swerve a grim punishment.
Joel and Ethan Coen are credited as co-writers with Matt Charman and unsurprisingly for a dialogue-heavy movie, their contribution largely seems to have been down to the dialogue. There’s a very wry tone here that’s unmistakably theirs, but there are spots of absurd levity left throughout the action too. It’s more obviously one of theirs than Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the last film that they wrote for another director, but like the punching punishment scene in that film, there’s at least one scene involving Abel’s ‘family’ that stands out as a signature bit of Coen brothers surrealism.
But on the other hand, Donovan is no fast-talking clichéd movie lawyer- he just talks rationally and so many of the pompous sorts (ably played by the likes of Sebastian Koch and Mikhail Gorevoy) with whom he tangles just gradually crumple in the face of his nigh-unreasonable reasonability. In one standout scene, he even negotiates his way through being mugged on the streets of East Berlin. He also continuously runs rings around his handler Agent Hoffman (a marvellously downtrodden Scott Shepherd), who starts out antagonising Donovan about his defence of Abel but then gradually becomes more exasperated with the lawyer’s unshakeable ethics as he’s forced to work more closely with him.
Much of the plot as we’ve described it at the top of this review takes place before the film gets to Berlin, but the film really excels once Donovan leaves the USA. It’s grimly realistic, it’s palpably chilly and as in the American passages, it’s impeccably well shot, designed and edited. Spielberg’s command of the moving image is at its best with regular collaborators Janusz Kamiński (director of photography) and Michael Kahn (editor), but special kudos should go to production designer Adam Stockhausen.
Stockhausen won an Oscar last year for his work on The Grand Budapest Hotel, and while that film looked back to a simpler time by creating a historical dollhouse out of a fictional republic, Spielberg has roped him in to create another impassioned nostalgia piece that’s conversely very grounded in historical reality, in all of its grimness.
It’s not as grisly as either SPECTRE or Mockingjay Part 2, two other 12A movies in cinemas right now, but Bridge Of Spies lands more thoughtful and effective blows within the same BBFC bracket by doing what he does best and putting the viewer in the action. Still, if that makes it sound heavier than it actually is, rest assured that Spielberg strikes a tonal balance that makes it an enjoyable and accessible watch, even with all of its grown-up themes.
To finish, it’s interesting to note that Bridge Of Spies hinges upon scenes which take place on trains – there are three in particular that mirror one another, with two unfolding on opposite ends of the film, framing a bone-chilling break into the third act. You can chart Donovan’s arc based on just those three scenes – where he is and how he changes in between them- and the third and final scene is the best of all of them.
Call it a B-side if you will, but Spielberg’s mastery of his craft remains undeniable.