“A fascinating adult drama”

by Steve Pulaski

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies opens in a quiet, almost meditative manner, giving us a sense of the hustle in 1957 Brooklyn during the brutal Cold War. Spielberg focuses on movements of characters and slow, melodic buildup that results in a shockingly peaceful opening, giving what we can foresee will occur. We then cut to a man named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), who retrieves a secret message in public before he returns to his apartment to be apprehended by FBI agents believing he is a Soviet spy.

Subsequently, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who specializes in insurance settlements, is requested to take the case and serve as Abel’s defense. The difficulty in the forthcoming legal battle is to ensure that Abel gets a fair trial, despite relations with Russian boiling like an unattended pot on a hot stove. Also during this time is the famous U-2 incident, where an American spy plane was shot down by Soviets and resulted in the death of Pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). As a result, Donovan must now go to the USSR in order to try and sanction an exchange for Abel’s safe return to his homeland for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an economics professor who was arrested under suspicion of being a spy during the construction of the Berlin Wall.

The first half of Bridge of Spies is so quiet and low-key that it’s almost a marvel of some sort. Spielberg further proves himself to be a delicate artist, with a gentle, liberal hand for long takes and intimate settings that build relationships with characters through tight, formal structures. Working with his longtime cinematographer Janusz KamiƄski, Spielberg gives this film a classic-film look, almost echoing the dark and brooding sentiments of Hanks’ overlooked Road to Perdition. This film feels like a Cold War-era film about a forgotten piece of the era, thanks to its emphasis on classic set decoration and Spielberg’s directorial artistry.

Bridge of Spies
Directed by
Steven Spielberg
Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Release Date
16 October 2015
Steve’s Grade: B

The second half of Bridge of Spies, however, opts for an approach more grounded in what you’d expect from this kind of a film: talky setups, moral conveniences, and a more linear A-to-B plot structure instead of the fascinating ambiguity and meditative qualities a Spielberg film like Lincoln or Munich maintained throughout their entire runtimes. During this latter half of the film – which admittedly doesn’t cripple it – even with the film’s scope extended to a more international level, we still zero in on the fine performance by Tom Hanks, who further proves that pairing him with Spielberg can almost do no wrong.

Hanks plays a character conflicted because of oppressive times to the point where some may find it difficult to see “the big deal” behind defending a Soviet spy on American soil. The moral ideas about following through with due process and a fair trial, while pretty standard and predictable for anyone who paid attention in law class, is still nonetheless a fascinating depiction of a film that is erected on difficult, weighty decisions by characters that always come with an accompanied “but…” whenever they are audibly proposed. Probably the most underrated component of the film, however, is the relationship Hanks’ Donovan has with Rylance’s Abel. The two occupy a sort of respectful, father/son relationship with one another that makes their banter that much more believable, in addition to softly humorous in some respect. The film would’ve benefited from more of these simple scenes between two men caught in very difficult positions where a rulebook of any kind eludes them.

The film was co-written by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, and in some ways, the more somber style of filmmaking makes this feel more like a Coen spectacle than a Spielberg film. However, it’s the poetry communicated through Spielberg’s directing that makes the film feel so fluid, in addition to the strong narrative that is given time to build over the course of nearly two and a half hours. All of these elements blended with some great, subtle period cinematography and a strong Hanks performance and you have a fascinating adult drama that, while not as layered as it could be, is an enriching experience.