The name Steven Spielberg instantly commands attention, as a director who has consistently demonstrated mastery of his craft. If he directed The Teletubbies, I’d watch it, because his capacity for visual storytelling is that finely tuned. But more than in a technical sense, he has certain sentimental themes he likes to return to, and the remarkable true-life story of Bridge of Spies is a triumph of humanism that Spielberg brings to the screen fluently. It’s no wonder that German Chancellor Angela Merkel observed the filming on the titular Glienicke Bridge (which used to connect domestically-held West and Soviet-controlled East Germany); Bridge of Spies represents a confluence of artistic talent and historical relevance.
In 1957, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in Brooklyn and tried for Soviet espionage, and insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to handle Abel’s defense. Even as Abel is found guilty, Donovan goes beyond the expected call of duty and succeeds in securing his client a sentence of 30 years imprisonment rather than execution. One salient argument of his: that Abel may be useful as a bargaining chip in the future. Cut to 1960, when U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the USSR, and Donovan is tapped to handle the exchange of Abel for Powers. But when the Berlin Wall is erected the following year and American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the East German Stasi, Donovan feels he must go against everything his CIA allies are telling him and not accept Powers without Pryor as well. It’s the right thing to do, but the chances for it to backfire are real…
Donovan is a man in the eye of the storm of a potential international incident, and Hanks plays him as a beacon of decency. As a historical dramatization, the story sort of writes itself; there is a symmetry to real events that lends itself to a script, and it all revolves on the axis of Donovan’s determination to do the right thing. Hanks’ role is familiar performance ground for him, and is not showy as a more ambiguous character might lend itself to be, but he knocks it out of the park all the same. And Donovan’s bit about what makes an American is a quick and understated beat, but still enough to make me want to cheer.
Matching him (though with a lot less screen time) is Rylance as the accused Soviet spy. He’s fantastic in a largely internalized role, magnetic despite coming across as having the mildest of manners. In a sense both Rylance and Hanks are underplaying their roles, but getting more out of them that way, doing a lot with a little while seemingly effortlessly drawing the audience in. The rest of the cast are effective in proportion to their function but mostly incidental. The female characters in particular (intentionally?) don’t make an impression and are underwritten. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the time period?
The world of Bridge of Spies at first blush looks profoundly unwelcoming, with lots of greys and metallic colors. But with Spielberg as our guide, the richness of the world shines through. His trademark “oners” take us over either side of the under-construction Berlin Wall, around and inside a car beset by incipient snow, and following bicycle couriers in an administrative building. Each extended take involves us in the setting. And there is a wealth of visual parallelism between the USA and USSR’s deployment of espionage being in many ways exactly the same.
Spielberg has often talked about his existential fear of atomic apocalypse, so the “duck and cover” material is in there as well. The other harsh realities of the time period are present but not in your face. I love how the public vilification of Donovan is there, accomplished by compact visual storytelling and not dwelt upon hamfistedly. The script (by Matt Charman and punched up by the Coen brothers) avoids melodrama and remains sharp and taut throughout.
And it all culminates in the Glienicke Bridge scene, which is really an ideal Spielbergian climax. It’s got his familiar background spotlights illuminated our characters. It’s got inherent tension, and it centers around the moral accomplishment of one man’s need to secure the safety of not one but two people. Consider it the Cold War’s own Close Encounters visitation sequence.
Bridge of Spies is a great, unshowy movie that is the product of a bunch of talented people firing on all cylinders. Hanks and Rylance play off each other subtly but memorably, the script is on point, and Spielberg hits the visual and emotional beats like clockwork. Not that the film feels artificial! It’s just, what else can I expect from probably the world’s greatest living filmmaker? Bridge of Spies is an understated but fiendishly well-constructed piece. It quietly rocks. 9/10.