Bridge of Spies, 2015.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Sebastian Koch and Alan Alda.
During the Cold War, an American lawyer is recruited to defend an arrested Soviet spy in court, and then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of the spy for the Soviet captured American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
With all the events of the world front and centre of many news outlets over recent weeks, it’s a strangely timely release of Bridge of Spies, which takes us back to a time when the world was a push of a button away from a cataclysmic event. Fear and anger led the way, but this war wasn’t fought on “no-man’s-land”, the battleground was one of rooms, with talking the weapons at the disposal of those most trusted with the fate of the most powerful nations discussing what was next.
A companion piece to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, Bridge of Spies is a quieter, more docile film than director Steven Spielberg’s other war works but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a lesser film because of it, for it’s just as captivating and enthralling as those aforementioned masterpieces. Telling the story of James B. Donovan (Hanks), a US insurance salesman who soon has a much larger task handed to him: providing council for an alleged Russian spy found in Brooklyn named Rudolf Abel (Rylance). While the evidence surrounding the case is sketchy, there is little doubt through the government of treachery and deceit, and must be dealt with accordingly.
But Donovan, while a proud citizen of his country, wants a fair trial against the wishes of those superior to him. Just as soon as this case begins to develop, US pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Russian soil and is captured, which soon see’s Donovan further embroiled in the ongoing war across the globe, but sees potential in a facilitated exchange of both men.
On the surface it may seem like a two-hour melodrama about those that ran the world at the time talking over brandy and cigars, but Bridge of Spies is as riveting a piece as Spielberg has ever made. Taking special interest in the subject to his father’s experiences around the time, Spielberg again crafts another smart and absorbing film about the different fallout of war, with focus on the men who spent their time in a different kind of barricade, always one step away from an irreversible decision.
As if lifted from the back catalogue of John Le Carre by writers Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, Spies mixes the complexities and intrigue of the novelist’s best work with something strangely upbeat, a combination that works fantastically throughout. And given that the subject matter may lead many to think that this is going to be a bit of a slog to get through will be pleasantly surprised at how taut and immediate everything feels while still keeping a light touch in places. It all keeps you hooked through all of the boardrooms, offices and waiting rooms, such is the magic of Spielberg and the stellar assistance of Janusz Kaminski’s wondrous cinematography and Thomas Newman’s soaring score (the latter stepping in for John Williams, busy in a galaxy far, far away.)
At the core of everything though is Hanks, who again showcases just why Spielberg so regularly calls on his MVP. Undemanding yet forceful, Hanks’ is as endearing as ever as Donovan, the man who will stop at nothing to finish the job he is assigned, not even the cold of Russia and by extension man flu. Alongside Hanks is Brit thesp Mark Rylance, largely unknown to major audiences (soon to change as The BFG for Spielberg), but his superb turn here as the forlorn, despondent-looking Abel that will stick in the mind at the final curtain, despite playing for all intents and purposes the “villain” of the piece.
There are a few niggles throughout, with the “americanisms” that bubble under the surface somewhat bothersome at times, as is the finale of the film which seems to suffer from “Return of the King-itis”, taking an eternity to wrap up proceedings, almost derailing the control shown up to that point. But such is the power of the first couple of hours that you can forgive such indulgences.
From the opening moments, Bridge of Spies grips and never let’s go. It may sag a little in the closing stages, but it’s undeniable that this is a beautiful, thoughtful and utterly riveting piece of film-making, the film showcases the best of the best from all involved and can proudly take it’s place as one of the very best 2015 has offered up.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Scott Davis is Senior Staff Writer at Flickering Myth and co-host of The Flickering Myth Podcast. Follow him on Twitter