Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a film that plays the long game. This complex Cold War drama is awash in espionage, shadowy figures, and furrowed brows. It’s a slow burn that challenges the audience to trust where it’s going.
Bridge of Spies is a fictional rendering of how a Brooklyn insurance lawyer ended up negotiating a high stakes prisoner exchange during the Cold War. Spielberg and writers Matt Charman – along with the Coen brothers – throw a whole bunch of details at you in the first act, some of which make sense and some that just doesn’t. It’s at that this point that a narrative puzzle begins to take shape. Over the course of the picture you begin to fully appreciate how every moment in Bridge of Spies is actually purposeful. What seems to be an irrelevant conversation in the beginning of the story ends up being as important as the events that eventually transpire in East and West Germany.
James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the lawyer asked to represent a Soviet Agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in a trial. Through the course of events he is then called upon by the CIA to help negotiate Abel’s exchanges for a detained US Soldier. However, it would be foolish to assume that Bridge of Spies is a military thriller. It’s is a thoughtful affirmation on doing what is right. This isn’t the first time Spielberg has directed a film with this theme (Saving Private Ryan).
Through the course of his defense, Donovan is dealing with the scorn of the public, an indifferent legal system, and imminent threats to his family. Donavan’s convictions drive him during his negotiations in Berlin to not only ask for the release of detained U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), but for the release of another imprisoned American as well.
Spielberg is very careful to not prop up Donovan in the same way that he wouldn’t prop up Lincoln in Lincoln. Hanks portrayal transforms Donovan into a real person, with a runny nose, doubts and all. Spielberg allows reality to supersede hyperbole and that decision is what makes Donovan such a relatable hero. There is truly nothing extraordinary about James Donavan but he does commit extraordinary acts.
The part of Bridge of Spies that was surprising is how likeable Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) was. Rylance portrays Abel as an intelligent, sympathetic, covert operative that won’t get worked up about anything, even his potential execution. His portrayal is really the most important element in Bridge of Spies because if Abel isn’t coming across as likeable then it becomes hard to believe that James Donovan would even want to help him.
It was concerning that Spielberg choose to just gloss over the story where James Donovan’s family was in danger during the course of Abel’s trial. In a film with so many wonderful and nuanced choices, focusing even more on how Donovan’s unwavering convictions put his family in danger seemed like an obvious choice. If you are going to show an extensive scene in the film where Donovan’s daughter is in the living room and someone starts shooting at the house and then it’s not addressed; that’s a wasted opportunity. Amy Ryan plays the role of James Donovan’s wife and not utilizing her emotional talents during this movie was truly a travesty. It’s these decisions that make a great move simply a good one.
In the end, Bridge of Spies is exactly what was expected. Spielberg’s ability to create a tremendous narrative plus the talents of a two-time Oscar winner makes Bridge of Spies a good movie. However, if the audience trusts that a Spielberg directed movie will always lead to a great film then they will be disappointed.