I can’t think of a more sure-fire way to guarantee a good film beyond casting Tom Hanks and getting Steven Spielberg to direct. And they unsurprisingly make Bridge of Spies great – it takes the their talents, adds excellent British actor Mark Rylance, and tells a true story of courage and wits against a backdrop of war, paranoia and politics.
James Donovan (Hanks), a US lawyer, is tasked by the government to represent Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance), and takes his job seriously despite public outcry. When US spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured on a reconnaissance mission by the Soviets, Donovan becomes key in negotiating a prisoner swap in a recently-divided Berlin, while playing a dangerous game in trying to free captured American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).
When you’re planning any movie set in the Second World War, Steven Spielberg’s influence dominates, but I think this is the first time he’s really delved into the post-war period in detail (other than Catch Me If You Can). As with so many other Spielberg period movies, the attention to detail is second-to-none. Not for one minute did I think the film wasn’t taking place in the ’50s, and the contrast between the warm, lively New York and frigid, shattered Berlin hammers home themes of difference and duality. I felt the movie’s shift to Berlin was where it really gains a sense of time and place – the paranoia, panic and gloomy greys and whites seep through the camera, and you really feel Donovan doesn’t belong. This is largely a credit to Spielberg’s usual cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, who understands how to depict glowing America and gloomy Europe in the 1940s and 1950s (see also Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan).
Scenes where the Berlin Wall is being constructed, and the tension on both sides, offered something that you don’t often see in films from the era – the beginning of the Soviet domination of half of Europe, and the fracture between East and West. The real-life story is another of those unbelievable situations that actually happened, and Spielberg’s ability to create tension and drama (even from a conversation or two, or waiting for a phone call) suits the setting perfectly. The script was also co-written by the Coen brothers, and it shows in the zippiness of the dialogue, as well as some running jokes and lighter scenes that help give it all some more humanity.
So, we have a principled American man who undertakes his job with sincerity, and who takes risks in order to help others? This role was made for Hanks, and he does it in style, as always. Donovan is a good man who cares a great deal about the law (despite what even his own government wants), and what Hanks manages to do is give little glimpses of normality amidst stirring speeches or snappy dialogue scenes. He’s a lowly lawyer thrown into something much bigger than he could have imagined, and it’s in the small moments, as always, that Tom Hanks is at his best.
English actor Rylance has mostly stuck to the stage or Shakespeare, but after playing the lead role in Wolf Hall, he’s now appearing in more and more films, and that can only be a good thing. His default expression is that of a sad dog, but Abel is a quite jaded, weather-beaten man who rarely panics (you get the sense he had been in worse situations), and he’s also just as capable of raising a laugh amidst the gloom. Taking on the theme of duality as I mentioned earlier, the whole movie is structured along this path – between east and west, warm and cold – and Rylance’s dry, reserved Abel is the perfect tonic to the more talkative, passionate Donovan. It’s nice as well to see how the two men begin to understand one another, which also works as a metaphor for the fact that, despite all the division and threat, both sides managed to come to terms.
Of the captured Americans, Stowell is more of the focus as the captured spy pilot. We follow Powers as he is secretly brought into the spy programme, and we learn of the risks as he prepares. The young actor, much like most of the rest of the cast, does not feature much compared to the main two men, but I found his performance a bit bland – even more so when his friend and co-pilot is played by Jesse Plemons, a far better actor cameoing here. Rogers’ Pryor is almost an afterthought, and we don’t get invested in his story, though the actor nails the sheer panic of realising you’re the wrong person on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in one tense scene.
Other actors hover in and out, such as Donovan’s CIA “handler” Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), who is enigmatic but powerless to do anything about Donovan’s recklessness, as well as Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan), stern East German lawyer Vogel (Sebastian Koch) and slippery Soviet bureaucrat Schischkin (Mikhail Gorevy). US character actors such as Alan Alda, The Visit’s Peter McRobbie and The Wire’s Dominick Lombardozzi also pop up in small but memorable roles along the way, though this is really the Tom Hanks show featuring Mark Rylance.
If I had anything to complain about, it would be that (as with Black Mass) reality affects the drama, with some strange plot points an actual reflection of fact. Also, you care more about the unfortunate Powers because we’ve seen how he gets to be arrested. With Pryor, we don’t really get the time (other than a few minutes in the lead-up to his arrest) to get to know him, and so while I felt the tension towards the conclusion, perhaps a little more focus on him might have made the film better. John Williams was unfortunately unable to score the movie, and while Thomas Newman does an able job, there was nothing memorable about the soundtrack at all to be honest.
These are quibbles though. This is a great if smaller-scale film from Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks – as ever – is great. Though I think he’s probably running out of inspirational, heroic American men to play…