By: Nick Anstett
Despite having only collaborated on a handful of projects, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have quickly made a name for themselves as one of Hollywood’s most respected creative duos. “Bridge of Spies” finds the two turning their attention to the Cold War in a tale of perseverance amidst international espionage.
FBI investigators have captured an aging Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (Marky Rylance) in New York. In the hopes of upholding some semblance of due process and credibility in the international community, the U.S. government requests that reputable insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), be put in charge of defending Abel in court. However, as the trial drags on and relations between the USSR and the U.S grow tense, Donovan quickly finds himself as not only one of the most hated men in America but also at the center of an international crossroad.
Spielberg has crafted a particular form of a historical thriller. Like “Lincoln” before it, “Bridge of Spies” centers on the efforts of one man to maneuver around a complex political system for what should be the greater good. Written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, the film concerns itself with the edges of an individual’s duty to his/her country and where that line might break in terms of personal strife and morality. To help capture this more fully, Spielberg and Hanks depict Donovan as the film’s stubborn and unflappable moral center. He is the one predictable and not doubly motivated character in the film’s complicated narrative. It works in terms of structure, but there are frequent moments where Donovan appears too saintly as he becomes more of a thematic tool than human character.
This marks the only true failing in an otherwise beautifully directed and acted take on the Cold War. Rylance, in particular, acts as the film’s undeniable highlight. Rylance portrays Abel with a sort of quiet world weariness and his soft, pointed dialogue acts as an entertaining and revelatory counter to Hanks’s Donovan. Abel becomes the most fascinating aspect of the chess-game played between the superpowers, and “Bridge of Spies” appropriately keeps his fate murky and in-flux for much of the film.
Spielberg’s touch for strong visuals and sweeping historical vistas is once again on display. It may feel familiar to those accustomed to his similar works such as “Lincoln,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or arguably “Schindler’s List,” but it is nonetheless visually impressive in its photography and impeccable design work. Few directors possess such a keen eye for detail as Spielberg does and it may in fact be the secret to his long-lived success. Behind each scene, Thomas Newman delivers a haunting but emotional score that fits the films ambiguous atmosphere without ever losing sight of “Bridge of Spies’” emotional center.
It all culminates in a phenomenal climax that finds both nations at a literal crossroads with one another. It smartly builds on two hours of ground work to deliver a few minutes of tense paranoia and international gambling. However, what sets “Bridge of Spies” apart from other similar works like the pantheon of brilliant Cold War novels by British author John Le Carre is a prevailing sense of humanism and optimism. There is a lack of cynicism or even jingoism in the way “Bridge of Spies” tells its narrative which is all the more apparent in its final moments. It does not attempt to talk down or belittle the sins that both nations have committed in the process, but it reminds us that at the base-level of the international mind games are people often times working to do their very best for causes they care about.