'Bridge of Spies'
Small and subtle by the blockbuster pioneer’s often grandiose standards, ‘Bridge of Spies’ nonetheless continues to make the case for Steven Spielberg possibly being the finest American filmmaker alive. Even though much of this tale of gosh-darn American goodness in the face of Cold War paranoia might consist of guys in suits sitting in rooms talking, Spielberg imbues it with such visual elegance, pulse-raising suspense, and flourishes of emotion that you can’t help but admire the work of a master almost effortlessly elevating his craft to art.
The film opens with a silent set-piece executed with suspenseful paranoid glee. Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel, a struggling artist in 1957 Brooklyn who is also secretly a Russian spy. We see him go about his mundane day while relentlessly pursued by special agents for the U.S. government. He picks up a message and is caught, but never gives up any information.
However, he’s not our protagonist. That would be Tom Hanks as James Donovan, the U.S. Attorney assigned to Abel’s defence. Despite the Cold War panic that ensures most of his colleagues and all of the media refuse to even consider Abel as a person, Donovan finds the wherewithal to defend him passionately and humanely at the price of his own privacy and safety.
At the same time, we also see glimpses of U.S. spy pilots in training. Eventually, one falls from the sky and is captured behind the Iron Curtain. With the competing governments unwilling to negotiate openly, Donovan is assigned to travel to Berlin and negotiate the trade of Abel for the pilot (as well as an American student caught in the political kerfuffle). Cue even greater levels of paranoia and more direct threats to safety as Donovan frequently crosses the freshly constructed Berlin Wall.
‘Bridge of Spies’ finds an intriguing balance between the pencil-pushing paranoia of John Le Carre’s Cold War thrillers and the “little man vs. the system” sentiment of Frank Capra. It’s an ideal (if odd) middle ground for Spielberg that allows him to flex his cinematic muscles as an audience-manipulating genre specialist as well as a big-hearted humanist who has become more intrigued by the intricacies of conversation as his career has marched on. Reteaming with Hanks for the fourth time, the film is a chance for them to go full Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck with the actor’s humble Americana persona. There aren’t many people who can portray such an unerringly “golly gee” good character in a manner that feels sincere and genuine anymore, but Hanks does so rather well in this too-strange-not-to-be-true story.
With Hanks offering such a bright beacon of Spielbergian hope at the center of ‘Bridge of Spies’, other actors are allowed to play things in shades of gray more appropriate for a Cold War thriller. Rylance in particular is beautifully sardonic and secretive. It’s through these more twisted supporting players that the Coen brothers’ contribution to the script shines. Though the movie was clearly a work for hire for the siblings and boasts only touches of their musical dialogue and sarcastic humor, it’s fascinating to see their voice combined with Spielberg’s. The film’s dance between Coen cynicism and Spielberg sincerity is entirely appropriate to this story of a good man in an almost surreal, politically complicated situation. It’s a tale that naturally fluctuates between genuine fear and absurdism, so there’s no better odd coupling than the Coens and Spielberg to dance through that minefield.
Beautifully shot in the muted tones and eerily glowing lights of most late-period Spielberg, ‘Bridge of Spies’ has a hypnotic visual force that somehow pulls audiences to the edge of their seats in even its quietest moments. The film feels like one of Spielberg’s most satisfying outings in a decade. It highlights all of the director’s strengths while still pushing for something deeper than the popcorn fare that made him a brand name.
It would be impossible to call ‘Bridge of Spies’ Spielberg’s finest feature given that a) it’s too small a tale for that and b) the man’s made some pretty brilliant work over the years. Yet it’s another cinematic highlight in a career filled with them that will inevitably figure into this year’s awards race. When a filmmaker so naturally gifted at manipulating the medium finds a project so suited to his skills, it’s a gift for cinephiles to simply sit back and get swallowed up by the results. Enjoy it.