Steven Spielberg offers a solid but safe spy thriller concerning the true story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an American insurance lawyer commissioned to defend suspected Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in court. Donovan takes to this thankless task with vigour and is soon criticised for doing so. The bulk of the film follows the more dangerous aftermath of the case, as Donovan is used by the CIA to negotiate a spy exchange with the Soviets against the backdrop of a newly-walled Berlin. Against all odds, and in opposition to the stubbornness of the spies and bureaucrats around him, Donovan must secure the deal in a war which is becoming very cold indeed.
The film is as much a spy thriller as is it a throwback to 1940s morality tales. The storytelling is admirably old-fashioned, and the plot as simplified as possible. It maintains the core American values of due process, honour and respect. Hanks is well cast in a role best suited to the likes of James Stewart – the everyman trying to do the right thing in extraordinary circumstances. One sequence is reminiscent of the famous filibuster scene in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, while Dakin Matthews’ performance as the curmudgeonly Judge Byers is similar to the antagonistic Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life. The tone of the film is consistently sentimental, allowing for an arc that is entirely emotional with no need for detailed exploration of the story.
This is not a film for historical analysts, nor is it a chilling exposé of the tactics used by both sides of the cold war in any meaningful way. Instead, it is a comfy, confidently-made romp that celebrates good guys and cuddles up with Capra. The decision to shoot the film on 35mm stock adds to the 1950s aesthetic, giving the film a graininess that makes it both tangible and alien to a modern audience. It is a film that fits very much within the frame of the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood, though it never quite lives up to the cinematic literature it evokes.
This is not a flawless film, and there are times when it verges upon the sickly and jingoistic, especially in the mawkish final scenes. But this is expected of Spielberg – an unashamedly traditional, populist, romantic, American filmmaker. He is also a reliable and talented. As a result, Bridge of Spies certainly delivers on its promises, but never quite exceeds them. Nonetheless, the brain is never pushed too hard, and sadly neither are the nerves, taking some of the thrill out of ‘thriller’. Furthermore, the ever-reliable Amy Ryan is wasted in an uninteresting, thankless role as Donovan’s wife Mary, while the amiable Alan Alda appears all too briefly as Donovan’s boss. Though there are times when the film is lacking, it cannot be denied that this is an entertaining and well-crafted piece of cinema. It may not be as bold or stark as Munich, but nor is it as trite and pompous as Lincoln. One the one hand, the film could be more interesting, but it could also be a lot more irksome.
A number of factors ensure this balance. Firstly, Matt Charman’s screenplay was re-drafted by the Coen Brothers, and their influence is clear. Every now and then, there is a more pointed line or surreal moment that keeps the hokum in perspective, and offers a gentle sprinkling of humour to the proceedings. Secondly, in comparison with Hanks’ solid but rather starry performance as Donovan, Rylance is somewhat subliminal as the slippery Abel. He is utterly captivating and impenetrably enigmatic, providing a truly masterful piece of screen acting. Everything that Rylance does is measured yet effortless, as if he were not acting at all. His immersion in the role and the mystery he creates add to the sense of intrigue surrounding his character. In Rudolf Abel, Rylance has crafted perhaps the most credible on-screen depiction of a spy yet – a man who could literally be anyone, someone who could be invisible in a crowd or disappear in an empty room. While Bridge of Spies might not be among Spielberg’s finest work, it is certainly not among his worst.
Charmingly old-fashioned, effectively executed and featuring some strong performances, it may not be worth an Oscar, but it is definitely worth a watch.