“Aren’t you worried?”
“Would it help?”
It is exchanges like these, not grueling battle scenes or mercilessly woven plot threads, that become the blood of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, one of the very best movies of the year. I have long been fatigued by wartime period pieces, so I was shocked by how immediately this one had me in its grip. As soon as it was over, I was ready to see it again.
From its opening image of a man quietly painting his self portrait, the film is a clean slate, slowly revealing itself as a triumph of seemingly incongruous dualities: sprawling in length but briskly felt, epic in scope but nimble in construction, clear in circumstance but morally cloudy. Spielberg, master that he is, keeps it all in the air without ever succumbing to the stealthy flourishes so often associated with spy movies. After all, this is not a film about spying — it is about finding your reflection in the eyes of your enemy and desperately hoping he sees his in yours. In a time when the world is being chewed at the edges by violent fear mongers and extremist groups such as ISIS, a movie like this leaves one wishing naively for the Cold War’s doomed ambience, when not even the threat of worldwide nuclear evisceration could get in the way of two intelligent men trading words over a glass of good scotch.
Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer employed, to his bewilderment, to defend an alleged Soviet spy, Rudolph Abel. It’s clear beyond all doubt that Abel is guilty, but in a way, that’s hardly the point. Donovan, and indeed the film as a whole, views him not as a threat to be scrutinized but as a man deserving of empathy for doing a particularly difficult job. As he points out to a restless jury, Abel is doing the same work here that American men are doing in foreign territory. If we don’t treat him like one of our own citizens, what reason would the Russians have to treat our spy like one of theirs, assuming one gets captured?
And as it would happen, one does get captured, a pilot named Francis Powers flying the just-built U-2 reconnaissance plane to discreetly photograph Soviet ground. In the middle of his mission, Powers is shot down over Berlin and taken prisoner. Suddenly, Donovan’s argument is no longer hypothetical, and Abel becomes the center of a negotiation of trade with Russia, our man for theirs.
The screenplay, assembled by Matt Charman and refined by the Coen brothers, delivers its ideas through the simple actions of strong characters. Equipped with dialog that feels layered rather than deliberate, they make thoughtful statements about the nature of justice, about how someone guilty of heinous crimes should be treated humanely and with dignity, even if you believe they deserve otherwise. To villainize your enemies is to become exactly who they want you to be, and Donovan seems to understand this more than the American people that come to decry him. The best example we can make out of a person is a human one, and if you fail to do that, why should anyone else even try?
A friend of mine once criticized Tom Hanks for having such a distinct presence and charisma that you fail to see anyone beyond the actor. That this could be framed as a genuine criticism continues to confound me. Yes, there are actors who seem to slip into another skin, but others, like Hanks, find enough of themselves in a character that they don’t need to. Perhaps this is why Steven Spielberg is so attracted to him as a collaborator; no matter what story he’s telling or how gargantuan the production, he can always count on Tom to lead him through it with charm, humor, and gentle command. Would Saving Private Ryan be nearly as warm without him? More to the point, who would want it to be?
The true surprise comes in the form of Mark Rylance. Rylance, heartily acclaimed in Britain for stage and television, gives us a version of Rudolph Abel so carefully modulated that you’re kept at a distance without ever feeling as if you’re disconnected from the human behind the mask. He is a character who has slowly calcified over decades, and you’re never sure if what you’re getting is the man himself or the image he projects. It occurred to me about a third of the way through the movie that Abel might not even be conscious of his own limestone demeanor. Maybe that’s why he’s such a good spy.
One-hundred-forty-one minutes. That’s nearly two-and-a-half hours of runtime, and it dissolves like sugar in water. When so many films strain to be great art, Bridge of Spies is first and foremost great entertainment, with everything else following surely behind. The ending is one only a director as seasoned as Steven Spielberg could render so unforgettably: a pulse-pounding climax made from nothing but a few government agents and a snow-laden bridge, where two warring countries stand in pin-drop silence, each side waiting for the other to make the first move.
NOTE: The movie contains a majestically terrible in-joke that I am convinced was intentionally placed there by the filmmakers. The U-2 that features heavily in the story is the namesake of the Irish rock band U2, which seems like nothing until you realize that Eve Hewson, the actress playing James Donavan’s daughter, is also the real-life daughter of the band’s lead singer, Bono. It remains to be seen whether or not Hewson was cast for the sake of this gag, but I thought it was worth mentioning. I was quite proud of myself for catching it.
Spencer Moleda is a freelance writer, script supervisor, and motion picture researcher residing in Los Angeles, California. His experience ranges from reviewing movies to providing creative guidance to fledgling film projects. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org