A new film from Steven Spielberg is here, surprisingly without the usual buzz. While his most recent films Lincoln and War Horse were long tipped to feature in the Oscar nominees, and released for Christmas or in January, Bridge of Spies has been smoothly unveiled without fuss in October. That’s not to say that it won’t end up being a player again this year, but it is refreshing to just watch the film without those added expectations.
What is striking throughout The Bridge of Spies is the confidence in the craftsmanship – the polished competency present in every frame. The veteran Spielberg, directing his 29th feature film across five decades, is a master of the cinematic medium. One can’t deny that this is a maturely constructed and intelligently conceived film. Though features like Schindler’s List, Minority Report and Munich suggest otherwise, Spielberg’s films often adhere to conventions and stereotype and serve as widely consumable crowd-pleasers. Bridge of Spies, a true-life Cold War historical drama of shady allegiance and daring espionage, is one such film. It tells a compelling American story starring one of American’s heroes of the screen, Mr. Tom Hanks.
Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an experienced and respected Brooklyn insurance attorney who is tasked with the duty of defending Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy arrested on U.S soil. Due to his involvement in the trial he is recruited by the U.S Government to negotiate the release of a U-2 spy plane pilot shot down over Russia at the height of the Cold War. Donovan journeys into East Berlin to make contact with both the Soviets and the Germans, offering his client Abel, whom he has saved from the Death Penalty, as a bargaining chip for their safe release.
Donovan became a celebrated humanist for this timely negotiation (and another exchange following the failed Bay of Pigs invasion), and wrote a book, ‘Strangers on a Bridge, The Case of Colonel Abel’, detailing the event. His premonition – that the U.S may need Abel to cooperate an exchange with captured American spies – eventually became a reality. Accepting his civil duty of defending Abel, he comes to respect his psychological stability and professionalism under the pressure, and takes the losing case again before the court and argues against a nationally-favoured death penalty punishment.
I found the dialogue in the script from the Coen Bros and Mark Charman (WWII drama Suite Francaise) to be exceptional – the Coen-esque humour, handled brilliantly by gifted comedic performer Hanks, worked really well – but it is a tad drawn-out dramatically and unfortunately features a lot of obvious foreshadowing, which eliminated some of the desired tension. The sub-story about the U-2 pilot training is far less interesting than the central mission, but the editing across the multiple plains of action is really well done.
Bridge of Spies looks incredible, and impossible to fault on a technical level. The meticulously dressed sets and design of the era is so convincing, you feel like you have entered a time warp and watching a film not only set in the 50’s, but true to the old-Hollywood form. Janusz Kaminki’s photography; prone to harsh over-lighting at times, is also rather spectacular in giving the interior scenes an oppressively stuffy mood and beautifully capturing the cold, threatening atmosphere of East Berlin.
If there is a more equipped actor to portray calm competence under pressure is Tom Hanks. He is such a likeable performer, and true professional presence on the screen. Donovan is a humanist with a sense of duty, and though he makes some questionable moral decisions when representing the U.S Government, we wholeheartedly support him. His performance in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips was brilliant, and he was very strong as Walt Disney Saving Mr Banks. While he doesn’t work as often as he used to, he sure makes the most of every role. Also excellent here is Mark Rylance, an actor I am unfamiliar with. The heart and soul of this feature is the relationship between the men – and Rylance’s understated but stirring portrayal makes Abel a believable motivator for Donovan. While the primary objective is to bring the captured U.S citizens home, he struggles with the idea that Abel may be assassinated when returned to the Russians.
Bridge of Spies tells a fascinating story with Spielberg’s trademark skill and polish, and is carried admirably by Hanks. While it won’t ruffle too many feathers of history, it is a rich and rewarding experience.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer(s): Mark Charman, Joel and Ethan Coen (screenplay)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan
Runtime: 141 minutes
Release date(s): Australia – October 22, 2015