Not all spy films can be Spy vs. Spy. To call Bridge of Spies a ‘thriller’ would be inaccurate. Steven Spielberg, who directs the film, has brought to life an original creature, a “spy drama” really, with elements of courtroom drama, family drama, political drama and history lesson all rolled into one.
Synopsis: A Spy Exchange
At the height of the Cold War, insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is requested to take on his first criminal case in years. It is tricky as he is asked to defend an alleged spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Donovan must then head to East Germany to negotiate a prisoner exchange between Abel and downed American spy-plane pilot Francis G. Powers (Austin Stowell).
The Late, Mature Spielberg
Spielberg’s oeuvre can be divided (not very neatly admittedly) between his earlier blockbuster romps that are pure fun (Jaws, ET, and Jurassic Park) and his later, worthier films (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan). Bridge of Spies definitely belongs to the latter set; gone is the zing of his earlier blockbusters. This movie takes it time to build the atmosphere of its period. Post-war dreariness and weariness are evident in every frame of this gray picture. The Berlin Wall rises to scar the city. As the film progresses, the wall becomes more and more formidable, a clear sign expressing the difficulty and danger of switching between worlds, East and West, as Donovan is asked to do just that.
The Coens Bring the Laughs
The humour lightens the dreary imagery, not laugh-out-loud stuff, just a reminder of the everyday ridiculousness present in even the darkest times. This is Spielberg doing Kafka. Perhaps more interesting, it is not Spielberg doing Spielberg; it’s subtle. Gone are the easy delineations of good and evil to crowd-pleasing effect we saw in Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. Replaced in its stead is genuine warmth for the so-called enemy. The Russian spy Abel’s likability is brought to life by the charm of the acclaimed stage actor Mark Rylance, who matches Hanks’ omnipresent charisma and his embodiment of American wholesomeness. Bridge of Spies is smarter and funnier than the regular Spielberg fair, and this is where we see the stamp of the Coen brother’s screenplay.
Less Emotional, Still Beautiful
Spielberg is without his formulaic forcefulness and is instead fully embracing Coen absurdity. The gorgeously dark cinematography will stay with you when the story loses its memorability. For all its charm, the lack of emotional impact may mean it is probably not one of Spielberg’s classics, even if it is an exhibition of his mastery. Bridge of Spies works best when wallowing in period detail, with likable characters who keep you entertained while teaching you a relevant history lesson.