Following “War Horse” and “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies” rounds out Steven Spielberg’s trilogy of histories in the 2010s, each film earning a Best Picture nomination for being a superb piece of craft — and having Spielberg’s name attached.
None of these are bad, but they are extremely traditional films evoking the prestige dramas of the ’90s and not necessarily offering anything new. As such, “Bridge of Spies” doesn’t shed new light on Cold War history, but it does tell a small story with of inspirational characters with a lot of heart.
Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an insurance attorney asked to represent a recently detained Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). A proud Constitutionalist of sorts, Donovan decides it’s his honor and duty to give one of America’s most hated men his right to a defense. Then, when a U.S. pilot is captured in Soviet territory, the CIA recruits Donovan to negotiate a swap.
“Bridge of Spies” echoes “Lincoln” in its portrayal of a morally tenacious man who stood firm in the face of opposition. Putting an actor as likable Hanks in the role of someone as upstanding and charming as Donovan is almost unfair. The script, treated by Mark Charman and also the Coen brothers, builds clever scenes for Hanks to navigate through with total ease. The story doesn’t push or challenge the veteran, but it does frame everything that’s happening with the appropriate weight, enough so that we can connect with everything Donovan is going through and respect the decisions he makes and Hanks helps communicate those stakes. The Cold War was an ugly time; it might seem that what Donovan did and how he approached his responsibilities was a moral no-brainer, but it was actually quite complicated and extremely unpopular.
Rylance as well is a an excellent stroke of casting genius. More known for his stage work, the veteran creates a portrait of a man so self-assured it’s frightening. It’s the kind of nuanced supporting role that is easy to overlook when most award-winning supporting turns are flashy scene-stealers.
Spielberg and longtime director of photography Janusz Kaminski give “Bridge of Spies” such richness. This is a film driven by plot and acting, but the picture is pristine. In particular, the way they capture East Berlin during the negotiations scenes is feels haunting in a way few films taking place in that similar time and place have. Also, the visual symbolism of reflections and different perspectives is something Spielberg plays with subtly but enough so to put some artistic flourishes on his film. Most importantly, the climactic bridge sequence works on every level, and that alone proves Spielberg, cast and crew all did their job.
When Spielberg is done directing, “Bridge of Spies” will probably not make anyone’s list of his top films, but it shows that just about any corner of history can make for an excellent film in capable hands.
Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Matt Charman, Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan