Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell, Amy Ryan, Will Rogers, Jesse Plemons
Tom Hanks’ stolid, implacable, unshakably moral presence anchors this Cold War thriller from the ‘Berg, which dramatises events around the shooting down of the U2 spy plane in 1960 and the subsequent exchange of captured agents between the US and the USSR.
When Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the CIA, insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is tapped to defend him at his espionage trial. To the surprise of all and the consternation of many, Donovan takes his job seriously, arguing passionately and maneuvering deftly to defend a man who is doubtless a KGB asset. Abel is found guilty but dodges the death penalty on Donovan’s advice – he surmises there may come a time when the US will need a live bargaining chip more than a dead spy.
This is, of course, exactly what happens when the U2 is knocked out of Soviet airspace and pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) falls into enemy hands. Once again, Donovan is selected for a dangerous and difficult task, to – as he eloquently puts it to his Soviet opposite number – “have the conversation our governments can’t” and he’s dispatched to East Berlin to negotiate the swap.
This is confident, classy mature filmmaking, an astute adult drama that does its audience the courtesy of assuming that they are capable of grasping its taut narrative without growing bored in the absence of spectacle. It moves and it breathes, keeping several elements spinning as we are propelled towards the inevitable climax at the eponymous bridge (Glienicke Bridge, if you’re wondering, selected because Checkpoint Charlie was too high profile). Powers’ experiences being recruited into the U2 program and learning to pilot the plane (where one of his fellow pilots is the now-ubiquitous Jesse Plemons) run parallel to Donovan and Abel’s story, and there’s also a third leg: American economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who gets picked up by the East German Stasi under suspicion of espionage and becomes another playing piece on the board.
The problem – for Donovan and poor Pryor, at least – is that he is of little value to the American government. There’s an invisible timer on the exchange for both parties, with each wanting to retrieve their guy before he cracks under interrogation. Pryor, not being an intelligence asset, is not a priority for the US. He is a priority for Donovan, though, who goes to the mat to engineer a two-for-one deal and bring both Americans home.
That right there is the crux of the film: the disparity between monolithic ideologues and the people who live under them. Spielberg being Spielberg, he cants the argument in favour of good old American democracy and capitalism, but not blindly; the film shows an astute awareness of how even the most ostensibly benign worldview can attract violent fanatics. Donovan is not just socially shunned when he defends Abel at trial, shots are fired into his home while his family are there. Abel, for his part, calmly accepts that, if he is returned to the Soviets, he may well spend his life in a gulag or even face execution if they decide he’s been compromised.
Some viewers may balk at thought of Hanks essaying another infallible, upright bastion of morality and American idealism, but Bridge Of Spies cleverly and effectively tempers this by making Mark Rylance’s Abel an equally heroic figure. Yes. he’s a spy, but he’s a good soldier, as Donovan puts it at one point, calmly refusing offers of defection and never breaking his oath to his own country. Abel’s dour, fatalistic attitude to his predicament is worth a few laughs, too – you can practically feel his brooding Russian heartbeat under his meek, calm exterior. The realtionship that develops between him and Donovan is a genuine and touching one built on mutual respect that crosses political affiliations.
Whoever let the Coen brothers loose on a Cold War period thriller script deserves a medal. Bridge Of Spies is not as self-consciously constructed as their directorial body of work, but you can definitely feel their influence on the circumspect, guarded dialogue that fills the film. It takes a careful touch to write dialogue in which characters are trying to be extremely guarded while at the same time delivering enough data to keep the audience clued in. Co-writer Matt Charman’s contribution is less easy to discern, but the three of them have given us a rock solid, intelligent, clear-eyed work of considerable strength and moral certitude.
It is honestly difficult to remember sometimes when this kind of film was Hollywood’s bread and butter: strong, thoughtful adult dramas that treat grave material with dignity and seriousness, while still providing a cracking couple of hours’ entertainment. It’s cheap to say they don’t make ’em like they used to; Spielberg still does when he’s of a mind to, and it’s a shame more filmmakers don’t follow his example. Bridge Of Spies is rock solid.