Whilst it’s a film with serious overtones and occasional moderate violence, Bridge of Spies is quintessentially Spielberg; that is to say that no matter the gravity of the subject in hand, his tendency is and always has been to focus more upon human character, spirit and emotion than any type of warts and all harsh sense of realism.
In many ways, that’s what makes Spielberg a director that can appeal right across the board to every generation.
In Tom Hanks, there is no better actor to convey Spielberg’s vision. Hanks, here cast as Jim Donovan, an attorney assigned the frankly thankless task of providing legal representation for captured Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (a low-key but fine turn from Mark Rylance).
Abel’s ‘defence’ in a 1950s America, gripped by the cold war, is of course purely lip service; a token nod to the constitution, but nothing more than a charade to appease the collective ‘conscience’ of the American public.
It seems however that Donovan hasn’t read the memo and is clearly a man that upholds the constitution’s words and sentiment; it being the one and only thing, he feels, that truly defines what it is to be an American.
Predictably Donovan’s attempt to overturn Abel’s three espionage convictions fails, but he does succeed in convincing the judge not to send Abel to ‘the chair’ – pointing out that in these days of the Cold War, Abel may well be a key bargaining tool should the U.S. authorities require some leverage at a later date.
Down-grading a capital sentence of course, does not go down well with a fearful American public.
Almost inevitably, with a U.S. pilot shot down and captured behind ‘enemy’ lines, not to mention a young American economics student wrongly imprisoned in East Berlin; very much at the behest of the CIA, Donovan begins his initially reluctant transformation from attorney of law into key U.S. negotiator, in a bid to have released, now, not just one, but two U.S hostages.
In another director’s hands Bridge of Spies I’m sure would have been a very different beast. Spielberg’s gentle handling of the Coen brothers’ and Matt Charman’s script leans heavily on character and dialogue and one genuinely white knuckle aircraft sequence aside, there are few thrills and spills to speak of. Any opportunity to confront the gratuitous head-on, tends to be neatly side-stepped, to the film’s benefit it should be said.
Hanks is excellent. The supporting cast are top notch, and it’s all beautifully shot and put together as you’d expect from a Spielberg offering, re-imagining well the harsh realities of a mid-twentieth century, winter-stricken Berlin and the glaring contrasts thrown up between its East and West regions.
Everything is knitted together well by a pleasant enough, clearly John Williams-inspired orchestral score, supplied on this occasion by veteran Hollywood composer, Thomas Newman.
Does this now mean that Newman is Spielberg’s ‘go to’ music man?
Time will tell…
I suppose any criticisms levelled at Bridge of Spies might revolve around whether the whole story is perhaps a little sugar coated, with Spielberg, as mentioned earlier, choosing to focus more upon one man’s emotional journey than the ugliness of cold war, but that would be harsh to say the least.
It’s possibly not one of Spielberg’s finest, but it’s fine nonetheless, and yet another Spielberg piece that will doubtless last the test of time.