A Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaboration is a sure-fire attention getter. Such is the case with “Bridge of Spies”, an old school Cold War espionage drama made to bloom as awards season approaches. The trailers are a tad misleading. This is a dialogue-driven thriller that crafts its suspense through its many scenes of political back-and-forths, judicial wrangling, and contentious negotiations.
The story is based on the embarrassing U-2 incident which occurred in 1960 under the watch of President Dwight Eisenhower. It actually begins three years prior after a Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI. Wanting to give the appearance of a fair trial, the government appoints insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. The prosecution, the judge, the government, and the media all seek to make an example out of Abel. Donovan sees things different.
Donovan is a man of principle and stands firm in his belief that everyone including Abel deserves due process. This sparks outrage among government agencies, the American public, and even Donovan’s own family. This is the film’s early focus. We spend a lot of time with the development of Donovan and Abel’s relationship and the uphill battle they face in the courts of law and public opinion.
Spielberg begins breaking away to young pilots being trained for a top secret reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union. Among them is Francis Gary Powers who is shot down and taken prisoner by the Soviets. Fearing that Powers will give up vital intelligence, the government sends Donovan to East Berlin where he is to negotiate a hostage exchange – Abel for Powers.
Negatively, these breakaways are intended to provide context to Donovan’s mission, but they don’t offer much. None of the characters we get in these scenes are all that interesting or compelling. Even Powers himself offers nothing more than a face to the negotiations. This wasn’t a major flaw but it did seem like wasted time and it made the film drag a bit.
Also, one of the most fascinating parts of the story was the ‘fish out of water’ element – an insurance lawyer in hostile territory negotiating between two global enemies. But I never got the sense that Donovan was too worried or fearful. Certainly there are scenes where he feels the pressure, but I would have loved to see more tension, uncertainly, and internal struggle. Instead he handles his tasks as he would any normal insurance settlement back home.
I don’t think the blame for that goes to Hanks. His performance is superb. There is no doubt that this role is right in his comfort zone. Donovan’s down-to-earth everyday man qualities are no problems for Hanks. He has been a master of that type of character for years. I also loved the subdued performance from Mark Rylance, a fine British theater actor. His Abel manages to be the most interesting person on screen even though he offers practically no flash at all.
And then there is Spielberg. There is such satisfaction in watching a master of his craft work. The film was written by Mark Charman (and polished up by Joel and Ethan Coen). Spielberg lets their script breathe by directing with tremendous restraint. He grants his actors room to work and allows the story to unfold at an organic pace. There is practically none of that overpowering Spielberg flair that we have seen in the past. Just steady and compelling storytelling nestled in a wonderfully rendered Cold War setting.
Don’t let the trailers fool you. “Bridge of Spies” is no thrill a minute edge-of-your-seater. Instead it is a talky yet quietly made period drama. It is a fine reflection of vintage moviemaking mixed with a riveting story. It may never be heralded among Spielberg’s very best, but it does feature many of his best filmmaking traits (shaky political subtext aside). And mixed with a fine performance from Hanks, it seems primed and ready for the inevitable attention it will get come awards time.
VERDICT – 4 STARS