Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell
Film review by Kieran Freemantle
Based on the true story, Bridge of Spies is excellent historical spy drama, having the talents of Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and the Coen Brothers involved. Mixing Cold War drama and witty dialogue, Bridge of Spies is 2015’s Argo.
Hanks stars as James “Jim” Donavan, a New York insurance lawyer and a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. The American government give Donavan the thankless task to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet citizen who has been arrested in Brooklyn for espionage. Despite Donavan’s best efforts, the trial was for show and Abel is sentences to 30 years in prison.
Donavan is later recruited by the CIA to negotiate a prisoner exchange after a U-2 spy pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Sowell) is shot down over the Soviet Union and is sent to Berlin to achieve this - just as an American student is arrested by the Stasi in East Berlin.
Bridge of Spies is a film of two halves: the first being a legal drama about a lawyer giving the best defence possible in a hostile environment and the second is a story of CIA operations in the midst of a tense geo-political situation. When Donavan is defending Abel he is not just doing his legal and civil duty, he is standing up for American values of democracy, free speech and due process, fighting against the climate of fear towards the red menace. Spielberg captures the paranoia of the period, making it was impossible for someone to receive a fair trial and that anyone who is even associated with a communist is seen as a traitor to America. The public attitude is to show patriotism means being blindly loyal to the society you live in and the governmental system although Donavan is the man really standing up for American values. Issues like this still persist in America, with cases regarding the War on Terror, the Iraq War and Edward Snowden. This was a film set only a few years after Senator McCarthy's Communist witch-hunt.
It was an atmosphere of pure mass hysteria and Spielberg captures this paranoia of the period - from communists infiltrating American society to the threat of nuclear annihilation. The spectre of nuclear war is a present danger, whether it's the Americans and the Soviet trying to gain the advantage over the other to Donavan's son fearing a nuclear strike and preparing for such an event.
The approach Bridges of Spies takes is very similar to Spielberg's Munich, where Mossad agents assassinate the leadership of the Black September Organization after the Munich Massacre. Their actions lead to a more extreme next generation taking over – similar to what was happening in the Gaza Strip during this period.
Tonally and structurally Bridge of Spies is similar to the 2012 spy thriller Argo. Both tell of extraordinary true life spy missions, they are set in heightened political situations and feature a first half in the States and the second abroad. Both having a slight comedic bend to it. The Coen Brothers did rewrites on the screenplay (Suite Française's Matt Charman wrote the original drafts) and their influence is most evident with the dialogue, having plenty of witty dialogue and exchanges, and as the film progresses, the scenario becomes stranger. Mixed with Spielberg's sensibility for light comedy and Hanks' delivery and body language, they make Bridge of Spies a surprisingly funny film. Their touch is more present for Bridge of Spies then it was for last year's Unbroken, which The Coen Brothers also rewrote.
The heart of Bridge of Spies is the relationship between Donavan and Abel and both Hanks and Rylance were brilliant together, having good banter and emotional moments together as you would expect from a Spielberg film. Most of the relationship is frontloaded to the beginning of the film. Rylance spoke with an unusual accent, mixing different regional British accents instead of a Russian one. It is actually accurate to Abel's real voice and Rylance stands a very good chance to earn an Oscar nomination for his performance. Hanks convinces as a man with brilliant argumentative and persuasive skills, whether it was against judges, the CIA or KGB's agents or harden communist leadership.
When the film moves to Berlin it turns into a spy drama, where Donavan is given a crash course into how to be become a spy, having to attend clandestine meetings, remember mission details and act on his feet. Being a lawyer, Donavan is an intelligent man and finds a way to get the best outcome. Bridge of Spies aims for realism, so there are no shoot-outs or car chases, it is all about getting information, whether it is from dead drops or spy planes while the Americans, Russians and East Germans are making power-plays against each other in this complicated game of geo-politics. It is a film about political calculations.
Bridge of Spies is the first film since The Color Purple where John Williams does not score a Spielberg film. The official reason is Williams was unwell, but it was probably because he was busy with the next Star Wars film. Thomas Newman, the composer for films like Wall-E, Skyfall and Spectre handled the music for Bridge of Spies and he does replicate's Williams' sound. One of the final tracks has a very patriotic sound to it, almost leading this Englishman to stand up and yell "USA, USA!"
Bridge of Spies is an excellent spy drama that is also a courtroom drama, an examination on political and legal philosophy, and takes a wider look of the Cold War on domestic and international fronts. The dream-team of Spielberg, Hanks and The Coens delivers on making a film that should please history enthusiasts (even if it does take a few liberties) while giving us a fair few laughs.