What is interesting about Bridge of Spies is that it’s somewhat of a slight film, which is, needless to say, unusual for Steven Spielberg. Most of his films tackle weighty issues (Lincoln, Munich, Saving Private Ryan) while this one tells a microcosmic but nonetheless fascinating story with some meaty undertones and implications. It’s truly a courtroom procedural that takes place on different continents instead of in courthouses; about men in suits debating and discussing.
If I’m starting to bore you, fear not. With a lead actor as good as Tom Hanks, a movie is well worth watching. Hanks has always made a credible everyman, whose honest, Jimmy Stewart-like charm consistently makes him one of the best-liked actors of his generation — and rightfully so. Hanks plays Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer assigned to defend a convicted USSR spy at the height of American Cold War paranoia. His client is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who remains endlessly stoic and composed as millions of Americans clamor for his blood. “Aren’t you worried?” Donovan keeps asking. “Would it help?” Abel replies.
Meanwhile, the United States is spearheading top secret reconnaissance missions with high caliber aviation personnel, to scope out locations in the USSR for nuclear arsenals. The pilots are issued with strict instructions: Should they be shot down — although their aircraft are supposedly flying far above energy radar — they bite the bullet before they are captured. The most valuable asset for each country is the brains of their spies in enemy territory.
One such pilot assigned to the U.S. mission, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is indeed shot down but fails to take his cyanide pill. Donovan has foreseen such a situation — he’s in the actuarial business after all — and moved to keep Rudolf Abel alive as an insurance policy for the United States. He is soon sent into East Germany just as the Berlin wall is going up, to negotiate the release of Powers and an additional American student captured in Berlin, in exchange for Abel.
It’s an intriguing thriller premise and it’s handled well. The characters are strong enough to hold attention for the film’s nearly two and a half hour runtime. This is mostly due to Hanks, who Spielberg has complete faith in, and the smallest nuances in his performance are — as always — a masterclass in acting. English theater actor Rylance makes Soviet spy Abel memorable and sympathetic. The writing is particularly strong as well, probably thanks to a script polish from none other than the Coen brothers, who have always had a knack for defining character through action.
Haunting imagery arises from the scenes where Donovan wanders through East Berlin in the freezing sub-zero temperatures. He has his winter coat pinched by thieves who have never seen such an article in a communist city. He witnesses helpless victims walled up in their apartments before they can escape into the west and even sees some mowed down by gunfire as they try to make a break for it and scale the wall.
Spielberg evokes the McCarthy era effortlessly, assisted by Janusz Kaminski’s excellent cinematography and Adam Stockhausen’s flawless production design. The director and his team place us immediately in a sea of gray hats, flannel suits, martinis, crimson fingernails for women and reading glasses for men. An icy dust has settled across America — the fear of nuclear war is palpable. Donovan’s children cower in fear as they’re told what to do in the event of a nuclear attack, while his son puzzles why his father is defending one of the men who is helping to drop a bomb on them. Family dynamics has always been Spielberg’s forte and the movie lands its most affecting moments when observing Donovan, his concerned wife and his quietly frightened children around the dinner table. A scene where the family is attacked in a drive-by shooting is genuinely terrifying.
Then there’s also the tiresome Spielberg schtick, which we could do without — Jim’s wife (Amy Ryan) who tells Jim don’t go and do that brave thing and the cloying score that makes sure every emotional moment is heavily underlined — but all that is largely forgivable. Tom Hanks deserves to earn an Oscar nod for his work here, especially after being snubbed for Captain Phillips two years ago. It is doubtful Spielberg will, as this film takes a less heavy-handed approach than his recent critical favorite Lincoln, but it is, in fact, just that subtle, less self-conscious quality that makes Bridge of Spies the better film.
Mark DiStefano is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.