Director: Steve Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda and Eve Hewson
Running Time: 141 minutes
Release Date: November 26th
It is strange to look back at a time of our quite recent history, where the idea of nuclear holocaust was a realistic possibility, as a more simplistic period. Given recent events in Syria and the Middle East, knowing whom exactly your enemy was and what they stood for almost seems like a relic of an innocence lost. While the Cold War was never that simplistic, just look at the amount of dictatorships that the United States propped up in order stop Soviet tyranny, there is an element of truth to this. The Cold War was a war of ideologies, and what defined your way life was exactly what your enemy wanted to destroy. In Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the Cold War drama Bridge of Spies, the idea of American values and the principles that it holds is embodied not in any higher authority but in an ordinary everyman, the lawyer James Donovan played by Tom Hanks.
Donovan is an insurance Lawyer working in Brooklyn, when he is asked to defend an accused Russian Spy called Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Given the job in part because of his previous experience on the Nuremberg Trials, his expected role as Abel’s defense lawyer is merely a symbolic one, Abel is already viewed as guilty by the press and an unsympathetic judge who has no patience for a lengthy trial for somebody like Abel. Donovan is not content with merely being a token gesture to the supposed fairness of the American justice system, and even though he inevitably loses the trial, he does convince the judge not to execute Abel.
One of Donovan’s argument for saving Abel’s life was that it was in America’s best interest that they should hold onto a Soviet spy in case of the possibility that the Russians capture one of their spies, which is exactly what happens when a U-2 spy plane is shot down over Soviet territory and its pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured. A prisoner exchange is needed and Donovan is asked to travel to East Berlin in order to negotiate Powers release with the Soviets in exchange for Abel. Complicating Donovan’s job, aside from the espionage politics at play, is the imprisonment of an American student who found himself trapped in East Berlin during the construction of the Wall, and the East German authorities insistence on being treated as equal partners in the negotiations.
There is no other actor working in Hollywood today that can truly embody that all-American ideal like Tom Hanks, and once again that spirit is brilliantly utilized again here. Donovan has the moralistic principals of what is right and wrong that was previously seen in Jimmy Stewart in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and pre-racist Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird. “Every life matters” is the refrain that Donovan utters at numerous times during the film and it is clear that this is the ideal that he lives by, whether it is defending Abel by insisting that he is not a traitor as he is not an American citizen — in fact he describes him as a deeply loyal soldier to his cause and his own country — or in his determination to secure to release of the American student despite the objections of the CIA, who are only concerned with the release of Powers, not because of the man himself, but because of the fear of the valuable information he has about their spy planes falling into the hands of the Russians. Following a theme he has gone back time and time again in his career, Spielberg shows us that the values of America are found, not with those in power, but in the ordinary person. “We have a rulebook”, Donovan tells a CIA agent looking for any information that Abel may have told him, violating lawyer-client confidentiality in the process, “I’s the U.S. Constitution”, to reiterate his, and Spielberg’s, point.
Rylance provide strong support in the role of Abel. Often used as a means to provide stark contrast to Donovan, many of their scenes together in a visitors room sees a edgy Donovan standing or pacing around the room, while Abel often just sits down, smoking cigarettes in almost quite contemplation. Donovan’s gift of the gab has little outward effect on Abel, who takes his arrest, imprisonment, and release with a deadpan acceptance. It is a measured and studied performance, focused more on small gestures rather than any grandiose extravert flourishes.
For everything that works about it, the performances, direction, where it falls a bit flat is in its examination of Cold War dread. While a good job is made in recreating a divided Berlin, they come across as being more about the surface rather than the substance. A lot of the existentialism brought about by the idea of mutually assured destruction is mainly pandered to, a classroom being shown an “educational” film advising children to “Duck and Cover” in the event of a nuclear strike feels hollow, and the reactions of the public to Donovan over him being the lawyer to a Soviet spy, all angry glances on subway cars and angry confutations, come across as being too simplistic to accurately convey a sense of the time and place.
The strengths of Bridge of Spies far outweigh its weaknesses however, and the engrossing central performances and a few well-executed set pieces does make it work overall as an intelligent but accessible drama. Spielberg’s use of his trademark touches, the camera moving in on a character at emotional moments, the almost blinding back lighting, the desire to look at positives of the human condition even during tough times, are not going to convince any Spielberg doubters anything new. However Bridge of Spies is an entertaining look at a crucial period in our recent history. It’s just a shame that it isn’t a little bit more than that.