The new Spielberg. A true story of New York lawyer James Donovan who defended a Russian spy at court and then covertly traveled to East Berlin to facilitate an exchange of prisoners. He is constantly tested, first by the paranoia of his fellow countrymen and then by the tensions in East Berlin under occupation by the Soviets.
Bridge of Spies is a solid, solid movie. If some movies are like a sugary drink and a stroboscope, this one is a bottle of scotch and a leather chair. What you get is class, and it is what we expect from Steven Spielberg after decades of his work. Spielberg is interested in tackling a period piece now and then, every time choosing a different period in history. There was Schindler’s List (1993) for example, and Munich (2005), and Lincoln (2012) three years ago. As a director he is known for making rather sentimental movies, and for tugging on the heartstrings a bit too overtly. In Bridge of Spies, that tendency of his is toned back a little and that lifts the movie up as a more authentic piece, although it is still heavy and dramatic, and although main character Tom Hanks is rather forcefully portrayed as a Good Man and Good American.
There is much to like about Bridge of Spies, and what I really like to talk about is the excellent casting of Tom Hanks the lawyer and his counterpart Mark Rylance as the Russian spy. They are so perfect in their roles. Their personalities are counterparts and the dynamic is wonderful. Rylance plays a silent old man who looks perpetually surprised but in a rather tired, fatalistic way. He steals every scene he is in, and plays an Oscar-worthy supporting role. He never seems concerned about anything but simply looks at life at it is. Hanks is rather the amiable, approachable talker with a good heart, who takes a liking to this enigmatic man.
So, Bridge of Spies is a period piece that is more than people wearing different clothes. Spielberg excellently portrays the concerns and sensibilities of the time. The nationalism and rising paranoia in America is palpable while Donovan tries to do his job, from the judge to a common police officer who do not understand him. After this is properly set up and played out, we leave America and move to East Berlin and enter the minefield of political games between the CIA, the KGB and the East German government. People are never on Donovan’s side and he always has to push through the tension and friction. And the poor guy has a cold and just wants to go home and crawl into his bed.
In the first half, the movie doesn’t seem too interested in going anywhere quickly. There is a lot of exposition about America in the 50s and Donovan’s struggle to uphold his principles, and an hour passes before we move to Berlin. I wish the America part was shortened a bit and that the political games in Berlin were added to for some extra tension and conflict. The movie in its entirety could have used some more escalation of personal danger.
I have a feeling that Bridge of Spies is going to be forgotten quickly. It is the kind of film that is consistently engaging and impressive when you watch it, but there isn’t much that makes it stand out besides consistent quality. Do you remember that other Tom Hanks film Road to Perdition (2002)? I bet you remember that it was solid, but that you hardly remember a single scene. Similarly, Bridge of Spies will be praised by critics but I don’t think it will gather much attention or win many Oscars, if that means anything. Still, I recommend it wholeheartedly.