Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s latest, is about as characteristic of its maker as it’s possible to get. Tom Hanks’ earnest visage radiates light into the shadows of a harsh world infested with nefarious German and Soviet bureaucrats as he strikes forth to uphold family, decency and the American constitution before a backdrop of orchestral swells, European hell-holes and leafy suburban vistas. If you’re not into that kind of thing, avoid this film like the plague. I, for one, bought it hook, line and sinker. Some of this is down to Tom Hanks, an individual who has done more to engender goodwill towards America than the entire US State Department. I hope I never get so cynical that the sight of Tom Hanks being a Good Man™ makes me roll my eyes. Then there’s Spielberg himself, a director who — despite his mawkish tendencies and occasional flubbed ending — is a master at the top of his game. The film opens with a wordless sequence that is film language in its most distilled form and goes on to become the best sort of old-school spy thriller, grounded and precise yet dizzyingly cinematic. This is basically Spielberg channeling Capra with Tom Hanks as his Jimmy Stewart. In other words, a fortunate confluence of artistic influences that I’ve been awaiting without even knowing it.
Hanks plays Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer called upon by the government to defend Rudolph Abel (British theater vet Mark Rylance), a captured Russian spy. The year is 1957. The Cold War is escalating and, with it, American paranoia about the Russians.
Hanks plays Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer called upon by the government to defend Rudolph Abel (British theater vet Mark Rylance), a captured Russian spy. The year is 1957. The Cold War is escalating and, with it, American paranoia about the Russians. Donovan’s kids are practicing ridiculous nuclear safety protocols in the bathroom, people are peering suspiciously at each other on the train and the threat of apocalyptic conflict is on everyone’s minds. In this hostile climate, Donovan is expected to provide a nominal defense for Abel — thus preserving the sanctity of the American judicial system in the eyes of the public — while, in reality, throwing him to the wolves. Naturally, the upstanding Donovan decides that the man, spy or not, deserves more than a token defense. This is where the film’s ostensibly nationalistic colours start to run a little, bringing up some uncomfortable points that are relevant to the narratives surrounding contemporary warfare and America’s treatment of enemy soldiers. Donovan argues rightly that Abel is an honorable enemy combatant doing a job that plenty of Americans were engaged in around the world at that very moment. How would America want its own captured soldiers treated? It’s a pointed question that’s given emotional weight by Abel and Donovan’s burgeoning friendship, essayed beautifully by Hanks and Rylance. The latter has been dominating Shakespearean stages for years now and it turns out that his talents translate perfectly to the big screen. He delivers a fantastic performance that roils with wit and emotional complexity behind a sometimes hilariously expressionless exterior. You often see him breaking out the faint half-smile of someone who knows something you don’t and is gleefully aware of it, to boot. Every line delivery is laced with irony. And ironic it is that he — the career spy — is the only non-duplicitous person in the entire film.
Matters get even more complicated once an American fighter pilot is shot down over Soviet territory and Donovan is roped in to arrange a prisoner exchange. Given his civilian status, the government can officially deny involvement and all parties involved can get their people back without too much embarrassment. Or so one would hope. Once Donovan lands in East Germany, he finds himself entangled in an absurdist chain of events, negotiating his way through the doublespeak and charades engineered by the three governments involved in the exchange. The Coen brothers co-wrote the screenplay and their hand is most obvious in a surreal sequence in which Donovan finds himself in the office of a grotesque bureaucrat whose concept of reality seems far removed from his own. While Donovan’s European adventures incorporate moments of heavy drama, this is not the Spielberg of Schindler’s List. Bridge of Spies is a thoughtful film that deals with a lot of real world issues but, at its core, it’s a lovably old-fashioned adventure movie and, as such, essentially light hearted. It’s almost impossible to dislike. It features scenes of focussed tension, mounted with the precision of clockwork, and made all the more impressive by the fact that most of its frisson is generated through dialogue. Most of all, it lacks the cynicism of our modern cinematic age. Despite being mired in the corruption of states and their functionaries, our resolutely moral hero does the right thing and surpasses the standards required of him. All of Spielberg’s historical pieces — Schindler’s List, Amistad, Lincoln — are about individuals pushed to greatness by extraordinary circumstances and the glaring shortcomings of the people around them. Bridge of Spies continues that tradition in deeply cathartic fashion. Every now and then, I need a protagonist like Jim Donovan. The movie is based on a true story and I haven’t bothered looking into whether or not it’s been spectacularly embellished simply because the fiction, if it is that, feels so satisfying. For good or for ill, Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster and he didn’t do so by forgetting that sometimes we really need our heroes.