It’d be unfair to claim that Steven Spielberg has been making bad films over the past decade or so, at least if we choose to be merciful and forget (though not forgive) the huge misfire of the fourth Indiana Jones. However, what’s striking about his recent filmography is the absence of any career-defining titles and the unsatisfying feeling of the legendary filmmaker imitating himself, arguably including his most recent effort, the award-wining yet soporifically pedantic Lincoln.
Although not necessarily marking a renaissance, Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies hopefully sets a new course in the career of this Hollywood icon. Once again, his interest and enthusiasm for history have led him to tell a compelling, and refreshingly unknown, true story that took place during the pivotal period of animosity and distrust between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It’s rather eerie that the film is being released here in the U.K. just a few days after Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border.
Bridge of Spies picks up in the 1950s, as the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent living in New York who refuses to turn on his country and is waiting for trial. James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer and former prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, highly regarded as a negotiator, is approached to represent Abel since the government needs an independent attorney for the man’s defense. Although reluctant to take on such an unpopular case, Donovan eventually agrees, being committed to the principles of justice and the protection of basic human rights.
When the Soviets shoot down an American U-2 spy plane flying over their airspace, pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is convicted and sentenced to ten years in a Russian prison. The CIA, worried that Powers may leak classified information, recruits Donovan for a top secret mission in Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Once there though, Donovan learns that American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) has been arrested in East Berlin while trying to return to his home in the West, and despite the CIA’s orders to focus only on the pilot, Donovan decides to negotiate for the release of both the pilot and the student, as he refuses to leave anyone behind.
Donovan’s motto and the film’s thematic core is ‘Everyone deserves a defense, every person matters,’ an aphorism he repeats a few times along the way. Hanks, unsurprisingly, is perfect for the role and not just for his notorious everyman quality but also for the emotional nuance required by the character.
The trailers do the film a great disservice, selling it as a heart-pounding spy thriller. Bridge Of Spies is actually a slow burner where the tension is all internalized in the spirit of a time when information trumped combat, and words were the ultimate weapon. Anti-Communist propaganda bred paranoia and hatred across the country and within this fear of the unknown it’s his relentless belief in the principles of the Constitution that makes James Donovan an unsung American hero, one who uses wit and even humor, rather than violence, to handle an extremely delicate situation.
Despite the pace dragging a bit, Spielberg delivers his most solidly Spielbergian film in a while, impeccably produced and photographed, building the tension from political intrigue rather than spectacle. His job is made easier by the engaging performances of frequent collaborator Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, who shapes the reticent Abel with incredibly vivid work on the man’s physicality and mannerisms.
Albeit retaining some of his signature traits in the genre, Spielberg avoids the pitfalls of melodrama and sentimentalism that have spoiled even some of his best work. Here’s hoping this will serve as fresh inspiration for a filmmaker whose craftsmanship still has a lot to offer.
Words by Francesco Cerniglia