Bridge of Spies, the latest prestigious historical drama from Steven Spielberg, is essentially a two-for-one deal. The first part of the movie is a modestly interesting courtroom drama about a man who is given the unpopular task of providing a legal defense for an accused foreign spy. The second (and lengthier) part of the movie is a tremendously interesting spy drama about that same man being given the immensely challenging task of negotiating a complex international prisoner exchange. Like most of Spielberg's other historical dramas, the film is not merely dramatizing events from the past but using those events to quietly illustrate important truths about our present.
The multi-tasked man is James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan), an insurance attorney with a respectable track record. The KGB spy he is asked to defend is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, The Gunman), who is almost certainly guilty of everything he's been charged with. The United States government asks the distinguished Donovan to defend Abel precisely because they want this much-loathed foreigner to have a fair trial... or rather, the appearance of one. Soon after Donovan accepts the task, he encounters numerous important men who attempt to dissuade him from following proper procedure in certain areas.
Donovan knows that he doesn't stand much of a chance of actually winning the case, but he does hope to persuade the judge to offer a merciful sentence. The American public wants to see Abel hang, but Donovan believes it may not be long before an American spy is captured by the Russians. If that happens, it would be good for the Americans to have someone of value to trade. Sure enough, such a situation arises: a young spy plane pilot (Austin Stowell, Whiplash) crashes in enemy territory and is captured by Russian forces. Due to his familiarity with Abel, Donovan is asked to work out a trade with the Russians.
Shouldn't high-level government officials be conducting such trades? Yes, but the politics of this particular situation are so complicated that neither country can actually afford to be seen negotiating with the opposition. So, Donovan – working as America's unofficial representative (“We won't be able to help you if things go south...”) - must work with Russia's unofficial representatives. There will be many wrinkles added to the situation, and Donovan must find creative ways to iron them out.
Much like Spielberg's Lincoln, Bridge of Spies is largely a low-key historical drama in which men of various ranks discuss a variety of important matters. However, the dialogue is more consistently engaging in this case, and that's probably due to the fact that Joel and Ethan Coen are credited as co-writers (the first draft was written by Matt Charman, and the Coens were brought in to re-write it). The Coens have always taken great pleasure in the minutiae of the English language, and you can hear their distinctive sound in so many of the film's delightfully precise dialogue exchanges (for a perfect example, just take a look at Hanks' first scene – a terrific little character-defining moment that finds Hanks engaging in a calm, measured verbal duel with another lawyer on the technicalities of an insurance claim). However, Spielberg's direction is significantly less mannered (and significantly more sentimental) than the sort of thing the Coens usually serve up, and it's absolutely fascinating to see the manner in which their style meshes with his. There are a handful of moments that feel a little forced, but for the most part, it's a rewarding collaboration.
What Tom Hanks brings to Bridge of Spies as an iconic American screen presence is nearly as important as what he brings to the film as an actor. He's perhaps the most immediately likable actor in America; a man whose considerable charm is matched by an equally considerable sense of decency. He's both the guy you want to have a beer with and the guy you feel you can depend on in a crisis. In this film, he steps into the role of James B. Donovan with as much effortless grace as Gregory Peck stepped into the role of Atticus Finch. He is called upon to play a paragon of all-American integrity, and the sense of moral authority he brings to the table adds persuasive weight to the already-compelling notion that doing the right thing for your country doesn't always mean doing what your country tells you to do.
The other key performance is Rylance's turn as Abel, and it's the sort of role that seems likely to turn the actor – a widely acclaimed stage veteran who is still a relative unknown in the realm of cinema – into a much more prominent figure. Rylance owns the movie every time he appears, and his somber, weary face reveals the kind of man he is so elegantly. If you've read many of John le Carre's spy novels, you'll know this character: the quiet, intelligent, unglamorous professional who is endlessly devoted to the dull, thankless task he has been given. He reacts to each new development in his life with something resembling matter-of-fact resignation. “Don't you ever get worried?” Donovan asks. “Would it help?” Abel replies.
Spielberg's direction isn't hurried or frantic, but there's a pleasantly surprising friskiness here and there. Though Bridge of Spies never becomes a farce, there are plenty of moments (particularly in the film's back half) when the film mines dry humor from the sheer absurdity of cold war politics. So much of what's happening is a silly charade, but the charade is necessary because the the threat of nuclear war is real. Spielberg doesn't shy away from the harder realities of the era, but he uses moments of terror and tragedy as brief, necessary punctuation rather than as tone-setting landmarks. His skills as a storyteller remain strong, and his craftsmanship is once again nothing short of impeccable. This is a man who makes every shot feel intentional and purposeful, which is an increasingly rare quality in today's “shoot for the edit” cinematic climate.
Admittedly, there are a few moments that don't work as well as they ought to, particularly early on. The first third of the film contains some exceptional individual moments (the tense opening scene detailing Abel's capture in particular), but the film veers into conventional territory on a regular basis throughout the Abel's trial. The cliches are particularly abundant whenever the film zeroes in on Donovan's wife Mary (Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone), who is tasked with playing the doubting nag and the doe-eyed supporter depending on what the screenplay requires. The part is unworthy of the film, and the role is most certainly unworthy of an actress as good as Ryan.
It's worth noting that the usual John Williams score has been replaced by a Thomas Newman score this time around (a combination of health problems and scheduling issues prevented Williams from scoring the film), but it's unsurprising to discover that Newman – an esteemed professional in his own right – does fine, moving work. However, Spielberg employs music a bit more sparingly than usual, allowing substantial chunks of the film to play out without any underscore at all. When Newman allows big, martial drums to kick in during the film's climax, it has an enormous impact because the score has been so restrained up to that point.
I can't help but wonder whether Spielberg sees something of himself in Mr. Donovan. I don't mean to suggest that Spielberg is stroking his own ego here, but there are some striking similarities in the way Spielberg and Donovan approach difficult arguments. Donovan is a man of firm values, but he is far less interested in staging noble protests than he is in finding practical solutions. Likewise, Spielberg's politically-driven films don't feel preachy or confrontational, but diplomatic, making quiet appeals to both your heart and your mind. His humanism has grown particularly strong in recent years, with films like Munich, War Horse and now this making a point to demonstrate the universal similarities between “us” and “them." When Donovan gently insists that this Communist spy is just a decent man nobly doing the job his country asked him to do – a good person who happens to be on the wrong side - it might as well be Spielberg talking.
It's not difficult to see Spielberg drawing subtle, unforced parallels between the situation in this film and our country's current unwillingness to grant due process to prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay. The film's continued insistence that all accused criminals (citizens or otherwise) deserve a proper trial and a reasonable sentence feels more than a little relevant. It also makes an impassioned argument against our nation's bloodlust, suggesting that there are both practical and humanitarian reasons to treat our enemies with compassion. Even if Donovan wins all of his arguments, we all know that he'll only be winning a single battle. The war is still being fought. This is a deeply patriotic film, and Americans who think otherwise may want to consider asking themselves what patriotism really means.
Bridge of Spies
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Year: 2015