Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Amy Ryan
The big guns have been rolled out for Cold War espionage thriller Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s contribution to this year’s Oscar hunting season. Directing his first film in three years, the Hollywood master has teamed up for the fourth time with star Tom Hanks on a screenplay from Matt Charman and the Coen brothers.
In 1957, at the height of the Cold War and the accompanying thermonuclear hysteria, the CIA capture a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), living in Brooklyn. With the eyes of the world watching, and the American justice system under the microscope, it is important that Abel is seen as getting a fair trial. So James Donovan (Tom Hanks), partner in a successful insurance law firm, is appointed by the state as Abel’s public defender. While aware that defending the most hated man in the country will likely make him the second most hated man in the country, Donovan believes it is his patriotic duty to do the job.
Not the straight espionage film the title might suggest, Bridge of Spies is a film about patriotism. Donovan believes it is his constitutional duty to defend Abel, and upholding that is a greater act of patriotism than standing on the side of his country against the accused spy. CIA agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) tries to coerce Donovan into breaking attorney-client privilege, stating there are no rules in this situation. The judge overseeing the case makes no pretence of impartiality, telling the two counsellors he hopes for a speedy conviction. Donovan represents the kind of true patriotism that stands in the face of simplistic wartime jingoism. Through his plea to remember what it is that makes their country worth defending, Bridge of Spies invites comparison with today’s context where the response to the looming threat of terrorism has so often been to restrict civil liberties. While still relevant, these themes give the film an old fashioned, almost Capra-esque feel. Particularly in its first half it is tonally reminiscent of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, with Tom Hanks perfectly cast in the Jimmy Stewart role. Donovan is a principled everyman, and Hanks, in solid form, provides the right combination of likeability and nobility.
The ‘us-and-them’ mentality is also challenged through the characterisation of Rudolf Abel, impeccably performed by British actor Mark Rylance, who is best known for his theatrical work. Abel is a reserved, unflappable, and gentle man with a soft-spoken British accent. While there is no doubt that he is guilty of his accused crimes, he is not presented as being evil. In fact we are positioned to like him. Besides Donovan, he is the character we care most about. Both Donovan and Abel are men of honour and principle, and despite those principles being diametrically opposed, they recognise and respect that quality in each other.
The film then pivots at the halfway point, as Donovan goes from being an outside observer of the world of espionage to a key player. Five years after the Abel trial, in 1962, an American U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is taken prisoner. Donovan is conscripted to act as intermediary between two governments who refuse to talk to each other in order to negotiate a prisoner exchange. Motivated not simply by his sense of duty, but also by the opportunity to redeem himself and his family in the eyes of a public who see him as a traitor for defending a Soviet, Donovan barely hesitates. Sent to East Berlin to arrange the Abel for Powers trade, Donovan throws a spanner in the works when he becomes determined to also secure the freedom of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a young American economics student who was arrested after finding himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.
The great commercial director of his generation, Steven Spielberg is a supremely gifted cinematic storyteller. Starting with a virtually wordless opening which tells us so much about both Abel and Cold War America, Bridge of Spies demonstrates moments of masterful visual storytelling. Spielberg effectively uses visual mirroring to create comparisons. Both Abel and Powers use a trick coin as part of their equipment. From a train in East Berlin Donovan witnesses a group of people shot while trying to scale the Wall, a point of view which is mirrored as he watches kids scaling backyard fences from a Manhattan train. The director also employs similar visual connections for scene transitions: in court the bailiff commands “All arise” and we cut to a classroom where the children stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. Stylistically, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski also nod to 1940s film noir in the expressionistic use of shadows and oblique lines and angles.
Spielberg has always been a filmmaker prone to the sentimental, and Bridge of Spies is an unmistakably Spielberg take on the Cold War, one tinged with optimism rather than cynicism. While still keeping you on the edge of your seat, the master director, with the apparent comic influence of the Coen brothers, has managed to produce a hopeful, even feel-good, Cold War movie.
Review by Duncan McLean
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