Bridge of Spies: Film Review
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda
Director: Steven Spielberg
Powerhouse director Steven Spielberg re-teams with acting buddy Tom Hanks for the fourth time in this refreshingly old school Cold War thriller, inspired by true events and with a script given a spit and polish by the Coen Brothers.
At the height of the Cold War in 1957, Hanks is insurance lawyer James B Donovan, an all-round good guy. Given the task of defending Mark Rylance's spy accused Rudolf Abel, Donovan believes he's been given a poison chalice, with everyone turning against him for his decision to follow due procedure and the American justice system.
However, when an American pilot (Austen Stowell) is shot down in Russian airspace and paraded on trial as the paranoia ramps up, Donovan's called upon by the US Government to negotiate a trade. And things get more complicated when a young US student's caught up in the burgeoning East / West German republic and imprisoned, leading Donovan to try to do all he can to free him as well.
It's easy to see why Spielberg and Hanks were attracted to Bridge of Spies - it's like Schindler's List, but with espionage thrown into the mix as the nice guy does all he can to save the day.
Hanks is as watchable as ever as Donovan, who has to negotiate his family's escalating tension at his involvement in standing up for a man accused of spying. Coupled with his son's real fear of the atomic bomb and his growing estrangement for his belief in the American principles, Hanks' character is as much out in the cold as Abel, and Hanks relishes his time in the spotlight with a studied dependable portrayal of a decent man.
The film begins with a chase sequence as Rylance's precise and measured Abel tries his best to elude the pursuit of several G-men, adorned in fedoras in the transit system. It's a sequence we've seen many times before in many different spy films and Spielberg executes it faithfully, carefully and masterfully.
But this studious chase sequence is perhaps one of the few moments of action in a film that settles for brilliant war-time aesthetics and settings and good ole-fashioned scenes of men talking (even with the Coens' wit brushed through the script aimed at punctuating the almost documentary-like feel). Bridge of Spies is not smeared in action and it's certainly not an urgent film (making it feel like one from yesteryear), preferring to take its time to head to its destination as the politics of trading, the escalating global tensions and the intertwined stories play out on screen to varying degrees of success.
Certainly, there's an argument to be made for Rylance's involvement in the film - his Abel is a spy by way of a laconic Droopy The Dog, dishing out dry wit and perfectly timed comments to cut through the moodiness of the situation. In the time he's part of the narrative, he's unmissable. Sadly, the middle part of the film deems it necessary to exclude him from the narrative, preferring to concentrate on Donovan's Frank Capra-esque escapades in Berlin. His final sequences hint at the true nature of a life after for a spy and it's in the titular Bridge that the film becomes subtly nuanced and shows a welcome melancholy edge.
It's not a fatal flaw for Bridge of Spies, and there's certainly an argument that this sedentary, masterful weaving of a story will suit a largely Sunday afternoon audience, but it's perhaps telling that in its 2hrs 20 minutes. the lack of real urgency starts to show and almost causes the film to be lost in the ether. It's only in the final moments as a trade happens on the titular bridge that you realise how gripping it's been.
There's no denying Bridge of Spies is a worthy story, and another example of Spielberg and Hanks teaming up to champion the common man who ultimately made a massive difference; but there's just a nagging feeling which persists that it could have done with a blast of more energy to propel it along.