Bridge of Spies is what you expect from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, an entertaining and grounded take on the material, that excels at almost all times.
Set during the heart of the U.S./Soviet Cold War, Bridge of Spies follows a few different men’s paths, all of which are involved in the two super powers’ first spy prisoner trade. Our lead is an American insurance lawyer, James Donovan, who is tasked with giving the accused Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, a fair trial. The first half of the film is a beautiful back and forth as we see Donavan grow an appreciation for Abel as he builds his defense as it intercuts with some seemingly random American fighter pilots preparing for a top-secret mission. When one of those pilots, Francis Powers, is shot down beyond enemy lines, Donovan is again called upon to broker a trade between the two nations, as they refuse to acknowledge that either of them are actually involved in the matter at hand.
There is a great sense of humor running under everything going on over the course of this film, as it fully acknowledges the lunacy of the Cold War and the super secrecy built around the assumptions of maybe nothing. Hanks is perfectly cast in the role of Donovan, as he can acknowledge the humor of it all, yet we still take him seriously when things need to get serious. The film shies away from the seriousness of the situation much more than I imagined, only really stopping to acknowledge the grave nature of situation when it is around the Berlin Wall. Though, the violence shown is mostly there to quickly remind you this wasn’t all fun and games, but the overall tone of the film is mostly light; a welcome surprise.
With Spielberg behind the camera, you come to expect a certain level of quality from him and the film doesn’t disappoint. The only complaint you can really hold against the film is that it is a bit long in the tooth, but I think this might have to do more with the shift in the film’s perspectives than poor editing/filmmaking. Early on the film is expertly moving back and forth between the players, with some brilliant cross cuts and a sense of urgency to tell the story. This is so the film can get to the most important stuff, Donavan negotiating the trade, and at that point the film becomes a bit more singular and straight forward. I think on a second viewing this back half will play with no drag, but I did find myself looking for a bit more momentum first time out. That’s not to say that what you are getting in the back half isn’t good, it’s better than good, it was just delivered differently.
I mentioned how good Tom Hanks is above, but he might be bested by Mark Rylance who plays Abel. The stoic nature of the character is captured perfectly by Rylance, and he has perfect comic timing to go on top of that. Spielberg aren’t out to vilify Abel, the film tries to show him as a man doing his duty, and while it might not seem so at first, Rylance brings a ton of humanity to Abel. The back half of the film misses him too, now that I think about it, as the best moments of that section are when he shows up again. Powers is played by Austin Stowell, and, well, he could have had a little more personality if you ask me. Maybe this was the way Powers was, a straight forward fighter pilot, but I felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of life to his scenes. I’m not asking for Top Gun, and I know his whole job is to basically sit there and shut up, but something seemed off. Amy Ryan is wonderful, as always, as Donavan’s wife, I just wish we got more of her, but don’t we always wish that?
Bridge of Spies might be another great entry into Spielberg’s canon. It’s not his most showy or memorable effort, but it is produced at the highest of quality, besting most everyone else working out there. Tom Hanks is a joy, Rylance is a revelation, as Spielberg churns out another piece of historical drama that never fails to entertain. You never miss a Spielberg, and Bridge of Spies shouldn’t change that.