Film Review: 'Bridge of Spies'
After a critically-acclaimed historical drama in Lincoln, Steven Spielberg, the world’s most famous filmmaker, taps into history once again with Bridge of Spies, a dramatic thriller set in the midst of the Cold War era. Uncompromising in its portrayal of one of the most unsettling times in American history, the film is a figurative window into the past, and it makes its incredibly stellar cast members its incredibly stellar cast members lifelike representations of their real counterparts.
Having Spielberg at the helm is just one part of the film’s all-star setup. America’s favorite movie star, Tom Hanks, plays the center role as James B. Donovan, an insurance attorney in New York. What’s more, the script is penned by dynamic duo Joel and Ethan Coen, a pair who have more than proven themselves in the Hollywood arena with No Country for Old Men and True Grit. And with Spielberg at the helm, this is truly an all-star movie that exceeds the sum of its parts.
While Donovan is our central character and the driver of the story, the film opens with a simple-living, modest painter named Rudolf Abel (supporting actor nominee Mark Rylance) in the city of Brooklyn. After silently answering the phone and picking apart a fake nickel with secret codes inside, it's clear that Abel is some sort of spy - just in time, as federal authorities raid his home and arrest him. But Abel, with his mouth affixed to a permanent frown, pays no mind. If Abel was actually this mellow in real life, then Rylance has portrayed him to perfection, and is a sight to behold if only to see if he'll ever flinch at the threats levied against him.
So the American government approaches Donovan to represent Abel in court. He is at first reluctant to accept - he will certainly lose, and he will draw the ire of the public - but being the champion of our unalienable rights as he is, he is prompted to say yes.
Predictably, Donovan ostracized for his deeds, and it peaks in a drive-by shooting of his home, occupied by his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and two children (Jillian Lebling and Noah Schnapp). When his efforts in court inevitably fail, Donvan pleads to Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) to keep Abel alive; being an insurance attorney, Donovan sees the value in having Abel as a bargaining chip in the event that the Soviet Union captured an American spy.
And in incredible foresight, American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is chosen to photograph the Soviet Union from the air, and in doing so, he is shot down and captured. So Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate a spy swap – an incredibly daunting task in the heart of the most war-torn city on the planet.
The harrowing mood for Bridge of Spies is set perfectly by Spielberg, who had made this adaptation of history as true-to-life as possible. Recalling the same talents he utilized in Saving Private Ryan to portray an America stricken by war, Spielberg paints a perfect portrait of the Cold War era throughout America, the Soviet Union, and Germany.
There's a thread of tension underlying the film, and our catalyst for that tension is Donovan himself; he's solely in charge of negotiating this incredibly daunting, earth-shattering deal when just one misstep could be spark the fire of nuclear war. That's one heavy weight placed on Donovan's shoulders, and we see it in his face: the man in overwhelmed and stressed, yet maintains a hardy resolve even as he literally gets sick abroad. Tom Hanks was not only the best choice to relay this performance; he was the only one.
And when Hanks is coupled with an equally great performance given by Rylance, Bridge of Spies is a one-two-punch of a movie where the actors play incredibly well with one another. Abel's cool-headed ambivalence prompts Donovan to ask: “don’t you feel worried?” to which Abel responds “would it help?” more than once throughout the film. The line is not only a great insight into Abel’s character, but a trademark of the Coen brothers' memorable screenwriting: repetition of a line for both character development and humorous effect.
Bridge of Spies, in a large sense, is a story is not dissimilar to today's political climate. They feared nuclear war and Soviet spies back then; we fear domestic terrorism today. So for that, the story of Donovan's heroic efforts feels all the more relevant, and even more so when Spielberg and Hanks together have made such an incredibly believable and tense movie. Bridge of Spies is a war drama doesn't need to show the war to have drama; in Spielberg's perfectly conjured universe, it exudes significance and incites thrills to the purest degree.
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.