This five-way collaboration between Spielberg, Hanks, Charman, and the Coens, finds each of these exceptional filmmakers all pooling their collective talents together to make a film that plays to all of their strengths, and that is the main reason that Bridge of Spies is a cut above most films in current release. The fact that the movie may have too high expectations upon it, purely because of the prior resumes of all involved, does not detract from the fact that this is still a remarkable film that captures a moment in history where too few films have gone.
In 1957, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War are at their peak. Spies from both the American CIA and Soviet KGB are a major threat to the security of both world powers and each side often resorts to hasty measures to stop any classified information from being leaked. In Brooklyn, New York, Rudolf Abel is arrested under the suspicion of being a spy. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned as Abel’s defence lawyer. However the idea of defending a potential Soviet spy proves to be an unpopular and difficult task for Donovan.
Given that these events happened half a century in the past, and that an entire generation has grown up not knowing what the Cold War actually was, almost any other filmmaker might have had a very difficult time making the story clear. But then Spielberg has never been just any other filmmaker, and, being part of that generation that did know the fear that life as they knew it could end in a matter of hours, he knew that this was a story with huge implications, both political and humanistic. With Spielberg continuing to show the influence of Alfred Hitchcock in his work; and Hanks basically does a role not dissimilar to James Stewart in several of Hitchcock’s classic films. The depiction of the Cold War is magnified in the way Spielberg depicts the way the Berlin Wall cut off both the eastern and western parts of that city, and how Soviet soldiers cut down those who tried to jump over the wall.
It’s hard to say if Matt Charman was the primary writer and if the brothers came in on a polish. But watching the movie, it does make more sense – certainly more than ‘Unbroken’, which barely has their touch – since it carries a lot of dry wit in the exchanges between characters, in particular the opposing attitudes of people in this ‘period’ setting. The Coens I think brought a sense of realism to things, but also stylization; the way characters talk at times there’s a lot of things where people try to figure the other person out, which is fascinating to watch.
Tom Hanks brings a jovial Jimmy Stewart charm to his portrayal of Donovan. Literally, “Bridge of Spies” could be seen as “Mr. Smith Goes to Berlin.” Hanks looks like a paunchy, unassuming figure without a clue, but he emerges as the sharpest tack in the box. Donovan’s history is pretty amazing when you think about what he accomplished. Meantime, Mark Rylance is outstanding as Rudolf Abel. At times his expressionless face belies his indifference towards the political muck he ends up in. Even when he is aware of an imminent danger, serenity rarely leaves him. He carries his knack for painting and wears it even at direst moments.
Because John Williams, Spielberg’s long-time collaborator, was unavailable due to health issues, Thomas Newman, part of Hollywood’s illustrious film scoring dynasty, stepped in to do the score and while it may not have the typical verve of Williams, Newman’s score has a lot to recommend it, including the influences of both Shostakovich and Copland, avoiding the easy and (in some ways) expected patriotic cues. ￼Production values are top notch. Janusz Kaminski’s lovely muted photography, wonderful art direction designed by Adam Stockhausen, Kasia Walicka-Malmone’s nuanced period costumes.
Overall, Bridge of Spies is an excellent thriller. I know that some people might not like it, because it is mostly dialogue based. However, if you can accept that fact, then you will love this movie. An incredibly engaging thriller with great performances and an engaging story with likable characters and incredible direction. Easily one of the best films of 2015.
Bridge of Spies gets a 8.4/10.