The great director is at the top of his craft with this patient and stirring Cold War drama.
Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg’s 29th feature film as a director. The legend has been making films for over 40 years now and has helped shape the way we look at movies. His name has become synonymous with motion picture excellence and he is one of the few directors remaining whose name above the title instantly makes a film an event that must be witnessed. He’s tackled just about every genre possible (we’re still waiting for a Spielberg musical), but it’s arguable that his greatest achievements have been in the science fiction and historical drama genres. Only a few years ago he gave us the masterful Lincoln, which saw Spielberg at his most thoughtful, elegant, and restrained. Bridge of Spies is a film that very much fits into that same mold. It’s an incredibly polished Cold War drama that celebrates the principles that make America great. It’s also so charming and seemingly effortless that at first glance it comes off as slight for a Spielberg drama, but there is surprising depth to uncover in its classical form.
The based-on-actual-events narrative of Bridge of Spies follows insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is tasked with defending a Soviet spy by the name of Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) in 1957 during the height of the Cold War. Abel’s defense is meant to be a gesture of goodwill showing the world that the United States justice system works, but the powers that be have no interest in Abel actually having a credible defense. Unfortunately for them, the lawyer they have entrusted with this task believes in the Constitution and is determined to stand by the principles therein. Abel’s conviction is a foregone conclusion, but Donovan is able to spare his life by convincing the judge that it is in the United States’ best interest to keep him alive should they ever need him for a prisoner exchange. And not long after, Donovan’s prediction of a US spy falling into Soviet hands becomes true and Abel is suddenly of incredible value. The plot jaunts over to East Berlin where Donovan is chosen by the CIA to negotiate a prisoner exchange. From here Spies masterfully weaves its way through an espionage tale that is often harrowing in its depiction.
The acting in is uniformly excellent with Tom Hanks charismatically leading the pack, in a performance that is being compared to the best of Jimmy Stewart’s work. That’s apt, as Hanks is so likeable as a classic leading man and American idealist. It’s a performance that looks a lot easier than it actually is as Hanks has to guide the audience through a web of intrigue and speechifying. But Hanks’s big moments never feel like sermons, as he is able to give even the most sentimental of liberal ideals frank sincerity. It’s a great “movie star” performance. As his scene partner Rudolph Abel, Mark Rylance is beautifully reserved and unassuming. There is a quiet, wry twinkle to the character even as Rylance is able to inject pathos into the role of man who is faithfully serving his country. His scenes with Hanks are the film’s best and he is sorely missed during its middle section.
Per usual for Spielberg, the crafts work is phenomenal across the board, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski particularly standing out in giving the film a vintage 50’s sheen as authentic as it is picturesque. Michael Kahn’s editing flows gorgeously as the film’s pace is methodically laid out. Much like Lincoln, Bridge of Spies has plenty of room to breathe, allowing the audience to soak in every reflective moment. Thomas Newman’s muted score serves the film well, but it would be a lie to say that John Williams’s absence isn’t felt. (Spielberg and Williams have a repertoire that speaks for itself — never have a composer and a film director been so intrinsically linked, and it’s a collaboration unequaled in its excellence. One can’t help but wonder what kind of edge the 83-year-old composer would have given the film.)
Spielberg used War Horse as an homage to John Ford and he is using Bridge of Spies in a similar fashion for Frank Capra. It’s an incredibly patriotic film representing the best of American values. Its liberal ideals are worn proudly and at a time of great uncertainty in this country and around the world, Spies defines American exceptionalism and our humanitarian values boldly. It’s a film that is unashamed in its message of standing up for human dignity and progressive principles. It’s also a film that goes out of its way to be compassionate to the other side, and for that it should be celebrated.
Bridge of Spies is a superb addition to Steven Spielberg’s varied and prodigious filmography. It represents the filmmaker’s values and command of the visual medium in powerful and moving ways. The film sneaks up on you and takes hold. It would be no great surprise if it came to be remembered as one of Spielberg’s finest hours.