Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
In a year that has seen the release of many spy thrillers from Kingsman to Mission: Impossible to Spectre, Spielberg has created one of a very different kind. Instead of gadgets, stunts and explosions this film opts for an altogether more subtle, ambiguous and ominous tone as it builds its tension and suspense. The Cold War marks a frighteningly uncertain time in history when the threat of a nuclear war between two colossal nations was all too real and all it would take to set it off was a single mistake. Spielberg taps into this prospect by depicting a negotiation for an exchange between the Soviets and the USA where a single misstep could result in the deaths of the negotiators or of the subjects being negotiated. The history of war, diplomacy and espionage is Spielberg’s bread and butter and so what he crafts here is a suspenseful thriller in the way that only he could have made it.
When the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is caught by the American government, the task of representing him in a court of law falls onto James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan is a principled man with strong morals and so he feels compelled to give this man the defence to which he is entitled despite the backlash it inspires. As this is happening Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) an American U2 spy plane pilot, is shot down and captured by the Soviets. It then becomes Donovan’s job to travel to Berlin and negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers. These negotiations prove difficult and dangerous for Donovan especially when he takes it upon himself to include an American student who was arrested by the East Germans in the deal. Tensions rise and grow more palpable as the three parties involved continue to dispute each other over a deal that could blow up at any second and could even escalate into something much more serious.
As opposed to the Second World War which inspired mass destruction, chaotic battles and brutal deaths, the Cold War inspired a different sort of terror. The fear, from the American viewpoint, came from the uncertain nature of the enemy, the ever-present threat of a weapon that could cause global destruction and the oppressive state of such places as East Germany. This wasn’t a world where people died, it was a world where people disappeared and were never heard from again. It is no easy task to convey that sort of dread and despair in a film but it is one at which Spielberg masterfully succeeds. Through the use of expert cinematography, production design and music, the film is able to portray a cold and harsh world where the situation of any given person is consistently uncertain and where everyone’s actions are driven by a foreboding and constant tension that has yet to yield. Spielberg however, being who he is, allows hope and valour to break in at certain points and to ultimately triumph in the film’s conclusion. Bridge of Spies is rich in its atmosphere and tone and allows for an exhilarating viewing experience.
The task of carrying this film falls onto Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Tom Hanks who shines in a role tailor-made for him. Donovan is driven by a strong conviction for justice and fairness and refuses to compromise as much as an inch. He is asked to defend a man the entire country wants to send to the electric chair and resolutely stands up for his client’s liberty and rights. He comes to Berlin to negotiate the freedom of one man and instead fights adamantly for two. At the end of the film when we are given a post-script on what happened to Donovan following his time in Berlin, the story that is provided is one that summarises this character perfectly. My favourite performance in the film however was provided by Mark Rylance who stole every single scene he was in. His simple and unassuming manner made for a wonderfully understated performance that spoke volumes in surprisingly little screen time. Abel faces a disheartening prospect where the number of possible positive outcomes in severely limited. Nevertheless he faces it in such a calm and unperturbed way that I found myself rooting for him.
There is no doubt that Spielberg is a master director but, in his post-Saving Private Ryan career, I always felt that his work as a director suffered from a lack of innovation and inspiration and thought that he ought to consider retiring in order to preserve his legacy. With this film however, and Lincoln before it, I am glad to have been proven wrong. Bridge of Spies is a moody and fascinating film with ominous undertones and masterful performances and direction. There are times when I think Spielberg’s tropes are perhaps a bit too heavy-handed and occasions when the film gets a bit preachy and idealistic for my liking but these are little more than nit-picks. Bridge of Spies is an excellent drama that delivers its suspense and thrills in a way unlike any other spy film released this year and is a fine addition to Spielberg’s filmography.