Though it features a very likable and compelling performance from Tom Hanks and the high quality in terms of production that you might expect from a Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies just doesn’t serve up enough thrills to live up to its “thriller” billing. Its narrative momentum tends to lag at points where one might expect the tension to ramp up, leading to a film that plods rather than barrels forward. It has its moments of tension, as well as a surprising amount of humor for a Cold War era political drama, and it cleverly draws an implicit parallel between contemporary America’s fear-driven, polarized and reactionary politics and the cultural landscape of America in the Cold War, a nation so wound up in its fear of Communist infiltration and the specter of nuclear war that Americans lose sight of the principles of equality and fairness that define us as Americans. But those qualities in the end don’t balance out the film’s shortcomings in terms of pacing, resulting in a film that feels more like a history lecture than entertainment.
Hanks plays Brooklyn insurance attorney James B. Donovan, who in 1957 is asked by his law firm partner Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) and the Brooklyn Bar Association to provide legal counsel for accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) as he is tried on three counts of conspiracy to obtain and transmit U.S. defense information to a foreign power. In order to show the world that the U.S. justice system treats all cases, even those regarding espionage, equally, the powers that be wish Donovan to provide Abel with a “competent” defense, as is his right according to U.S. law, and by “competent” they mean “adequate”, but by no means exemplary. Donovan, a staunch believer in the ideals behind those laws, goes far and away beyond what was expected in terms of his work on Abel’s behalf, which does nothing but antagonize the judge in charge of the case, put Donovan on the CIA’s threat radar, and make Donovan little better than Abel in the eyes of the American public, which clamors for the spy to be sent to the electric chair.
For the next three years, Donovan braves angry public sentiment and disfavor within his own firm and with his family as he works on Abel’s behalf, and the two develop an odd friendship. Just when it seems that he’s out of options in helping his client, however, things take a very unexpected turn in the wake of the U-2 spy plane incident that saw the Soviets shoot down a high-altitude U.S. spy plane, recover the advanced camera technology within the plane’s wreckage and the plane’s pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), and make quiet, back-channel inquiries into the possibility of a prisoner exchange, Abel for Powers. Donovan then finds himself sent along with a number of CIA handlers to negotiate the exchange in Berlin, which itself is a city in turmoil as what will come to be known as the “Berlin Wall” goes up and east attempts to seal itself and its people off from the capitalist west.
With both the CIA and the KGB following him, the Russians and the East Germans, who may share ideology but have differing agendas, each making their play in the negotiations, and things getting even more complicated with the addition of another American prisoner offered in trade, Donovan must figure out how to best protect his client while also hopefully getting both Americans home. To do that, he’ll have to figure out who he can trust, if there is, in fact, anyone he can trust at all.
In addition to Spielberg in the director’s chair, the talent behind the cameras rolling on Bridge of Spies is a virtual “who’s who” of Hollywood Oscar winners and nominees. The script comes from Joel and Ethan Coen … enough said. Handling cinematography is Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, who’s been a part of just about every major Spielberg film going all the way back to Schindler’s List in 1993, . The man in charge of production design, Adam Stockhausen, held the same duties on 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (for which he won an Oscar) and 12 Years a Slave (for which he was Oscar nominated). Thus, it’s no wonder that there isn’t a frame in the film, a single shot, location, or prop, that doesn’t feel genuine or organic to the film’s time and place. That really shouldn’t surprise anyone — when talking Spielberg films, pointing out and praising a production that’s inspiring in scope and meticulous in terms of detail seems almost superfluous at this point. But it’s still striking the way this legendary director and the talent he selects to bring his visions to life can transport audiences and their imaginations to settings both future and past, fictional and non-fictional, so consistently and convincingly. Here, whether the scene is set in the Brooklyn inhabited by America’s “greatest generation”, or in stark, war-torn and snow-covered Berlin on the eve of the Iron Curtain, it’s all a captivating feast for the eyes.
In front of the cameras, walking and talking in the midst of all that impressive staging and production design, is of course Tom Hanks, for whom Bridge of Spies will be the fourth time out working with Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal). As stated earlier, Hanks is likable enough here as the stalwart idealist asked to do a thankless job who does that job so well that people get angry at him, doing that job well for no good reason except that not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s the American thing to do, whether most Americans happen to see it that way or not. His function in the story is to remind us as Americans that we’re capable of better than simply being ruled by our fears and prejudices, that being an American in fact demands that we be better than that, and Hanks fulfills that function with effortless charisma and believability. But the true star of the film, the one that no doubt will have critics buzzing both now and at awards season, is Mark Rylance, playing Rudolf Abel. In his turn as the accused and imprisoned Russian spy, Rylance, a three-time Tony award winning stage actor who’s also won a Primetime Emmy and numerous other acting accolades, projects stoic gentility, intelligence, and complexity. Arguably, his work here might most be remembered by audiences for his quiet stoicism. His complete and somewhat unsettling command of his emotions in the face of one dire outcome after the next leads to Rylance sharing with Hanks some of the film’s most endearing and memorable moments as they play off of each other’s vastly disparate reactions.
As to the film’s flaws, even those are arguably a byproduct of its strengths. To the film’s credit, Bridge of Spies never dumbs things down for the masses. But that effort to give the events depicted their due in terms of gravity and complexity does cause some unwieldiness in terms of the film’s structure and pacing. Yes, laying out all the players and political goals involved in this particular chapter of the game of brinkmanship between East and West that came to define the latter half of the 20th Century’s global politics takes time and care. But the film’s first act gets bogged down by having to jump back and forth between pushing forward Donovan’s work on Abel’s case with introducing the parties and the circumstances involved in the U-2 incident, and then awkwardly having to bring them all together in the second act and in signature Spielberg fashion wrapping them up neatly in the third. For all the time spent on the details, paradoxically, by the end it all feels rushed, a feeling aided by the lack of any solid indication of just how much time passes as all these events take place. These inequities in total detract from just how entertaining and satisfying the film could have been, given everything else that’s well done here.
Bridge of Spies
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, and Alan Alda. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Running Time: 142 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.