My generation will never know the fear and paranoia of the Cold War; the looming and ever present idea that the communists were coming to get us, the sheer injustice of McCarthyism or the almost unimaginable concept of a city being divided down the middle with a wall. It all seems so foreign an idea, so far away, but what Bridge of Spies accomplishes more than anything else is establishing that world, the one people lived in only a few decades ago.
Directed by three-time Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) from a script written by Matt Charman (Black Work, Suite Francaise) and the four-time Academy Award winning Coen brothers (The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men), Bridge of Spies tells the true story of James B. Donovan (two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks; Philadelphia, Forrest Gump), an insurance lawyer. A former prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, Donovan is pressed into service by the U.S. Government to defend Rudolf Abel (Primetime Emmy Award nominee Mark Rylance; Wolf Hall, The Government Inspector), a Russian spy caught on American soil.
Believing that every person deserves a fair defense, Donovan accepts but after an American pilot is taken captive by the Russians after his spy plane is shot down, he’s asked to do even more. The Russians suggest a trade, Abel for the pilot, with the catch that Donovan negotiate the swap. More concerning, especially for Donovan, is the location of the trade: Berlin, Germany during the construction of the Wall.
Bridge of Spies is a fantastic film that tells a truly incredible story. The real life history surrounding the events only add to the movie’s impact, and the actions of Donovan are all the more astounding considering they actually happened. Charman and the Coen’s do a great job of establishing the man as one with an unimpeachable moral compass, but he can also see the shades of grey that surround him, a feeling that is only added to by Spielberg’s intense, almost oppressive directorial choices.
The director does an excellent job of bringing the era to life, creating a world of spies and subterfuge that the everyman Donovan is forced to navigate over the course of the film. Spielberg’s work here is utterly superb and his talent is on full display when the film moves to Germany.
However, the most crucial part of the whole equation is Tom Hanks, who turns in his best performance in years in the lead role of Donovan. Hanks has always been a compelling screen presence, and here he creates a fully realized character that dominates each scene. Also brilliant is Mark Rylance, who will partner with Spielberg again next year for The BFG. He plays the role of Abel with a serenity and calmness that’s almost hypnotic in nature, and provides a great deal of humor in the role, a surprising and refreshing twist on what one might expect from the character.
The film does drag, especially in the middle, and Spielberg’s irritating penchant for sentimentality and over explaining shines through too often. The man desperately needs an editor that will say “no” to him sometimes, because when he’s given free rein he leans far too heavily on long emotional stares and exercises a tendency to make subtext text. One particularly egregious example at the end of the film played like Spielberg didn’t trust my intelligence to understand what he was saying, so he spelled it out in small words as if I were a child. It lessens the impact of an otherwise impressive and emotional moment and it pulled me straight out of the film.
Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg’s best film in years, a trait gained by him largely avoiding his most common cinematic indulgences and focusing instead on a serious story in an oppressive world. The film’s historical worth is significant and a truly fantastic performance by Tom Hanks, bolstered by an excellent script, makes this an extremely entertaining film.