A review of Bridge of Spies
I’ve had Bridge of Spies on my radar since late 2012. Shortly after watching Lincoln, I checked Steven Spielberg’s IMDb page to see what he was working on next, which listed as his next project was “Untitled Cold War Thriller”. I was sold immediately: any movie directed by Spielberg, particularly the historical movies he’s taken to doing these last few years, has a really good chance of being good, and the Cold War is one of my favorite periods of history. And as the details filled in, I became more and more intrigued and knew I was going to have to see this movie as soon as it came out. Finally, on Friday night, I saw it. Bridge of Spies isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s darn close, and it certainly lived up to the hype I had built up for myself over these last few years.
Bridge of Spies is written by Matt Charman with Joel and Ethan Coen, and the writing is one of the best parts of the film. The dialogue is authentic, sounds natural, and even has a touch of humor sprinkled throughout. The film is also paced really well. This is especially important in the dialogue-heavy first part of the film, which concerns the capture and trial of the Soviet spy Rudolph Abel. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, and he’s definitely the protagonist of this film, but it’s Abel’s character played by Mark Rylance who we meet first, and he steals every scene he’s in. He’s softspoken, stoic and steadfastly loyal to the Soviet Union, but rather than being a Soviet fanatic he’s more of a professional and carries a wry sense of humor as he assesses his changing situation. I’ve never heard of Mark Rylance, but he’s perfectly cast for this role. It’s hard to explain why, but he just looks like a Russian, and the way he talks captures your sympathy, which is something you might not expect from a Russian spy.
James Donovan is an insurance lawyer and a partner at a respected law firm at the beginning of the film, and because he is so respected the Justice Department asks him to go through the motions of arguing Abel’s defense to put on a show that he got a fair trial. Donovan is initially reticent, but eventually the idealist in him makes him take the case. Hanks plays this reluctant hero role well. While he’s not far outside his range (he’s played characters like this before), Hanks has a knack for being an authoritative presence while remaining an everyman, so he’s cast well also. Donovan has a wife and three kids, and their reactions to his getting involved in this case reinforces the stakes, both in his own family and with his country. Some family scenes are humorous, taking advantage of the fact that this is a normal family man whose responsibility also includes the fate of the world. But other scenes are more poignant, including a well-edited scene of Donovan’s youngest son trying to wrap his head around how to prepare for a sudden nuclear holocaust.
Donovan mounts a vigorous defense of Abel, who we’ve become sympathetic to, but is unable to prove his innocence or an unfair trial. He is, however, able to prevent Abel’s execution, making the case to the judge that executing Abel wouldn’t be the American way. Throughout Bridge of Spies there’s a clear moral distinction between the spies that sell secrets to a foreign nation and betray their homeland and spies that leave their homeland to work undercover in a foreign nation. It’s a bit heavyhanded at times, and it lacks the moral ambiguity you might find in a le Carré novel, this idealist argument works well for Abel’s character because he’s so sympathetic. But the fact that Abel is not executed sets up the second part of the film, in which a U2 flown by US Air Force pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union, Powers is captured, and suddenly Abel becomes a bargaining chip to get Powers back home. I won’t go into too many more details, but the second half of the film is absolutely riveting.
Although Spielberg is one of those directors who I’ll see whatever he’s made, sight unseen, I think I take him for granted sometimes. I take for granted that if you give him a decent script based on a historical event, he’ll churn out a competent movie and make it look easy. But in no way is that easy, and reducing his work to just a product off the Spielberg assembly line ignores the craftsmanship Spielberg puts into these films, and this one is no different. It’s technically flawless, but above that there are some shots that are simply gorgeous to look at. The atmosphere, tense and shadowy throughout, is perfect, and really ratchets up in the second half of the film. A lot of the second half of the film takes place in Berlin, and I noticed that the city, still ravaged by World War II at the time, looked a lot like the ravaged towns that Spielberg showed in Saving Private Ryan. My favorite scene of Bridge of Spies is one near the end, on the eponymous bridge, and the cinematography and atmosphere is incredibly similar to the classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I got chills in the theater while watching it, and it’s not only a great scene on its own, it’s Spielberg throwing a shout-out to a classic in the spy movie genre.
This is the first time in thirty years that a Spielberg movie was scored by someone other than John Williams, who’s now over 80 and also had that indie film Star Wars: Episode VII on his plate. So Spielberg turned to Thomas Newman, which ended up being a great decision because while the score has all the hallmarks of a Thomas Newman score, there were moments that sounded incredibly like John Williams too. Newman always makes great use of his strings section, for the tender moments as well as the action moments, but in this score he also uses brass to great effect for the patriotic moments, and the brass harmonies sound eerily similar to Williams'. So while Spielberg didn’t get his first choice of composer, what he got was probably the next best thing.
When it was released in 1998, Saving Private Ryan was a huge part of the surge of interest in World War II. I don’t want to make a direct comparison between the two films – tonally, Bridge of Spies is a lot closer to Catch Me If You Can than Schindler’s List – but if it gets the audience it deserves, it wouldn’t shock me to see Bridge of Spies spark a similar surge of interest in the Cold War. The writing, cinematography and sound are all fantastic, and while there’s less of a moral gray area in this film, at the very least it introduces a character in Abel who’s more than just the cold, calculating Soviet spy he’s accused of being. The very fact that Bridge of Spies reminds me so much of Spy Who Came In From The Cold rockets this movie to near the top of my spy movie list, and it’s worth seeing in theaters.