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
Am trying to take the whole family to see this. Maybe this weekend…after I see SPECTRE, of course. 😉
Of course! I needed to get this one in because Spectre was unquestionably the must see of this weekend.
I’ve heard people grumble about the dialogue driven, not-too-exciting thriller. I’m glad you gave it high marks. I’m sure I’ll get around to seeing it. But first, Spectre!
Spectre indeed! As for this one, I appreciated its dialogue heavy approach mainly because it is done so well and (with the exception of the parts mentioned) it is never slow or boring. But those trailers…so many of these things are misleading these days.
Yes, I hear you. A film with great dialogue rates high for me, much more than CGI – laden action pack films.
And it requires such a special talent – an ability to engage an audience for two hours strictly with words and exchanges. I have always admired that skill.
Nice review Keith. I really did enjoy Bridge of Spies, a conventional picture for sure that doesn’t break any new ground but one I found difficult to dislike.
Very true. As I mentioned, I don’t see this one being up there with Spielberg’s best. But this is such an interesting and restrained approach by him. I really appreciated that.
Good review Keith. I feel the same way you do. This is definitely not Spielberg’s best work, but it is still a very interesting and enjoyable film.
Thanks Bob! It is a good film and an example of Spielberg showing some really good restraint. Great lead performance from Hanks as well. He is right in his comfort zone here.
I think you summed it up with the first line “A Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaboration is a sure-fire attention getter.”
Thanks for reading. When these two get together you almost have to take notice. This is a really good collaboration. Maybe not among Spielberg’s best but definitely worthwhile.
Great write up, Keith! I have been suffering from Spielberg drama fatigue for some time, now, but I love Cold War thrillers that are smart and engaging. Especially when driven by characterizations and great dialog and exchanges. I know this one doesn’t break any new ground or comes out of it’s comfort zone but that may be the reason why i’m game to check it out. Thanks man! 🙂
I completely get the Spielberg fatigue. But I think you’ll like this one because this is a more restrained Spielberg. He really allows his material to breathe here. Good stuff bro.
Good to know! I just re-watched Thirteen Days to get my Cold War thriller fix. BoS looks like it will be just as enjoyable. Looking forward to it. Will probably wait for it to hit blu ray, though. Definitely going to see Spectre on the big screen, asap 🙂
Same here. Hopefully tomorrow.
You might be interested to read Michael Hoffman’s review of Bridge of Spies, which comes from a unique perspective as film reviews go:
Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.
YES! Glad you like this one too Keith! I gave it the same rating, and I like that it’s more of a talky yet quietly made period drama. I really like Hanks but Mark Rylance was excellent, great performances from these two!
I’m a fan of it Ruth. For sure. I too like the talky approach – a nice restrained Spielberg. And Hanks and Rylance were great!
Enjoyed this more than I thought I would. Dragged a little here and there (as some of these films can sometimes do), but I was expecting something like The Theory of Everything or The Imitation Game (good films but kind of dull), but I can actually see myself watching Bridge of Spies again. It was compelling.
Well said. It does have a couple of slow spots but it was really well done, wasn’t it. Do you agree that Speilberg seems to be pulling the reins back a bit?
Most definitely! Not going to claim that I’ve seen every key work of Spielberg’s, but I’d say he was pretty restrained here, which was needed. Didn’t need a lot of flash.
Exactly. And his willingness to show that restraint made this a really good movie. Without that it could’ve went pretty bad.
I’ve been interested in seeing this for a little while.