There were moments in the first hour when Bridge of Spies reminded me of a Stanley Kramer film, with Tom Hanks as the Spencer Tracy figure, trying to save his country from its worst impulses. James Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer in 1950s Brooklyn, is tasked by his firm to represent a captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Donovan takes to the job with more conscientiousness than everyone around him would have liked, and there are more than a couple of scenes with Hanks going on about the nature of freedom and democracy. He eventually loses the case, and his British-accented Russian client is sentenced to 30 years in prison. But when a US pilot is shot down over East Germany, an exchange of spies is proposed, with Donovan as the negotiator.
As soon as Donovan arrives in Berlin, Bridge of Spies, which is based on real-life events, becomes a smarter, more urgent film. Along with the pilot, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell), the East Germans are also holding an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). The CIA knows about this, but they’d rather just have their pilot back before he divulges state secrets. But Donovan wants both prisoners, and finds himself negotiating with the KGB for Powers and with the East Germans for Pryor. The scenes in which he’s just trying to figure out who everyone is and where their allegiances lie are the best in the film, and a continuation of the messy, intricate and at times comedic political manoeuvring in Steven Spielberg’s last film, Lincoln.
Though the Coen brothers are screenwriters here, along with Matt Charman, this is an extremely Spielbergian film. He’s still the most fluent of directors—you could teach a class on scene transitions with the dozen or so examples this film provides. Nor has he lost his touch for the extended set-piece: the opening sequence, with the FBI stalking Abel, is marvellous, as is the scene which imagines the foundation of the Berlin Wall. There’s no John Williams on score duty this time (Thomas Newman replaces him) but Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer Janusz Kamiński is on hand, making the light look cold or forgiving or heavenly.
Bridge of Spies is also Spielbergian in other, less thrilling ways. Though US Cold War propaganda is subjected to a fair amount of scrutiny, the director remains, as he’s always been, an un-ironic believer in the American way of life. Notions of fair play and justice are sentimentalized, and linked with the US constitution and justice system. After a while, I found myself tuning out whenever the conversation turned to the greatness of American democracy and concentrating instead on Spielberg’s little filmic tricks and the satisfying, measured performances of Hanks (in full Jimmy Stewart mode) and Rylance, a British theatre veteran and occasional film and TV actor.
It will be interesting to see how audiences take to Bridge of Spies and its vision of a brief thaw in the Cold War. Recent TV shows that have explored this terrain (The Americans; Deutschland 83) have tended to be cynical about the existence of decency and honour in either side’s political dealings. Would this have been a better film if it wasn’t so damn hopeful? Perhaps. But it wouldn’t have been Spielberg then, and one wouldn’t want that either.
This review appeared in Mint.