Bridge of Spies seems to be the sort of movie in which the general reaction is, “Oh,*yawn* another great Steven Spielberg movie.” Although undoubtedly cinematic, both in its subject matter (the Cold War, spies) and its sumptuous look, it is quiet and subdued. Based on a true story, it chronicles insurance lawyer James B. Donovan’s representation of a Soviet Union spy and his subsequent negotiations to release pilot Francis Gary Powers from Russia. Donovan is presented as an Everyman, and the casting of Tom Hanks – in top form here – seals the deal.
The first half of the film shows this Everyman representing Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and giving him a fair defense in spite of the overwhelming evidence. This first hour is both clever and compelling – Rylance is superb, and both the script and Spielberg spend the time necessary in order to humanize this enemy of the United States. All of Donovan’s peers and superiors hand him the case in order to give off the pretense of adhering to American principles, while Donovan alone stands to uphold them. His unfailing heroics threaten to come off a bit contrived, but Spielberg and Hanks sell it. Spielberg’s trademark warmth and sentimentality (which I defend succeeds due to his sincerity skills as a filmmaker) is on full display – Bridge of Spies is, in its best moments, a remarkable work of humanism. It is most successful in this first hour.
I called it subdued, but perhaps I should have used the word “mundane.” This isn’t a detriment – despite its heightened dramatization of the events there seems to be a controlled focus on the ordinary (see again: human) moments. Donovan’s characterization may not be the most nuanced, but he certainly feels like a man (he gets cold, he gets tired, he gets a cold while in Berlin, he takes two lumps of sugar in his coffee). Several of these banal moments are played for recurring wry humor, thanks no doubt to the Coen brothers, which is effective and helps to push along an occasionally saggy second half. The focus here on the mundane ensures that Spielberg earns those sentimental, heartfelt moments and enriches much of the drama. There are no disposable – or stock – characters, I just wish the latter half was as strong and sure handed in its objectivity (we are shown the gruff interrogation of the American pilot, but not Abel). This weakens its central focus on humanism and principles by failing to be principled itself.
Ultimately, though, Bridge of Spies sees Spielberg proving why he’s lauded as a great filmmaker. His direction here is controlled, subdued, and unassuming, both ensuring that it will never be help up alongside bold pictures like Jaws or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and seeing him evolve into a director confident in his abilities to tell a gripping story without the need for added verve. Although not without its problems (it is overlong, and has about four endings) Bridge of Spies stands as an expertly crafted drama.