Bridge of Spies is a classic Cold War drama from the master of popular cinema

Bridge of Spies

2015 was the year of onscreen espionage: Spy, Kingsman, Mission: Impossible, and, of course, Specter. Bridge of Spies seems like the first one likely to trouble Uncle Oscar.

The film opens in 1957 at the “height of the Cold War” as a title card helpfully informs us. When British emigre Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested as a Soviet spy, former Nuremberg court assistance James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is brought in to defend him.

Donovan is an insurance lawyer by trade, but capable enough to provide the appearance of fair play. He also brings with him a rigid sense of justice that no one expected or wants. It’s not entirely surprising then that, having argued Abel’s life should be spared as a future bargaining chip, it falls to Donovan to unofficially negotiate a swap when a classified U-2 spy plane is brought down over the USSR.

Bridge of Spies‘ script, from British playwright Matt Charman and both the Coen Brothers, plunges Donovan into the grey-scale hellhole of East Germany. Faced with a shitty hotel room, dangerous border crossings, and a plethora of vague functionaries, not to mention a nasty head cold, Hanks’ Donovan uses all his wit and charm to secure the release of Powers — and not just Powers.

Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography glosses up the war-torn wintriness from which Donovan, wandering from bureau to embassy, is understandably eager to get home; even to a country that resents his defense of Abel to the extent of blasting holes through his living room window.

Running a considerable 144 minutes, the film combines the milieu of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold with the populism of Lincoln. Spielberg’s direction makes ambitious use of tracking shots, like in following American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) — Donovan’s other objective — along a stretch of the Berlin Wall as it rises up to separate both neighbourhoods and families alike.

Bringing an easy polish to proceedings, Spielberg has arguably become the modern Frank Capra in recent years, telling stories of America not as it is but as it can be. Tom Hanks, meanwhile, now embodies the same sort of noble every-man that James Stewart once did.

While Donovan is articulate and adept — deftly maneuvering with a tumbler in each hand as the hidebound judge he’s petitioning secures his bow tie — Rylance’s Abel is the more intriguing role. Quiet and fastidious, as FBI agents raid his hotel room he asks only to clean his paint palette. With his downy hair and birdlike stature, he hardly seems like a threat to the American way of life. “Aren’t you worried?”, Donovan finds cause to repeatedly ask; “Would it help?” is Abel’s mild response.

It’s only during a single monologue that the character’s inner life breaks through the cracks. Rylance is, as ever, mesmerizing. This is the stuff Best Supporting nods are made of.

More or less dispensing with actual spy-craft, Bridge of Spies shows us the American and Soviet ways of life side by side. The American people may be reactionary — “Why ain’t we hangin’ him?!” cries a spectator when Abel is sentenced to prison rather than execution — but theirs is a country where clambering a fence won’t cost you your life.The film’s “Gee shucks” attitude never seems trite; much like Donovan, it works in part because of the naiveté.

The supporting cast, which includes the likes of Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, and the seemingly omnipresent Jesse Plemons, are under-served by a plot that requires little of them but filling in the gaps.

Nevertheless, the film makes for a surprisingly low-key crowd-pleaser, combining limited but effective action — Powers’ plane spinning out of control — and understated comedy — the ID’ing of the captured pilot is a wonderful non-event. Meanwhile, taking over from the absent John Williams, Thomas Newman’s score intriguingly blends elements of peppy Americana and Russian traditionalism.

Like the cold, and the ideologies it portrays, the film gets under your skin in subtle ways. If small hidden treasures are the currency of the realm — a hollow coin stuck to the underside of a park bench, a silver dollar which contains a poison pin — then suffice it to say that Bridge of Spies has plenty.

The latest prestige pic from the one and only Steven Spielberg is quality entertainment with enough soaring moments to compensate for the lack of ambitious storytelling.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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