Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a great film. There’s no doubt about it. A classic in his familiar historical thriller vein. But it is just that: a classic Spielberg film, in a style that has become almost too familiar. There is the classic Hanks-Spielberg pairing, the all-American patriotism of films like Lincoln and Saving Private Ryan, the sentimental optimism of films like War Horse and The Terminal, and the soft sepia tones that Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer, uses to create atmosphere in his historical films.
But above all it’s the optimism: Spielberg’s talent for conjuring optimism and joy out of even the darkest periods of history. And with the construction of the Berlin Wall, starvation and misery in post-war East Germany, and the nuclear escalation of the Cold War, there is no doubt that this is a dark period in history. The film is based on real events: Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) has been apprehended by the CIA, US spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russia and taken in by the KGB. Tensions are rising, things are coming to a head. Nuclear holocaust is never far from the conversation.
Step in all-American insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). Hanks is Spielberg’s optimistic ace in the hole: gruff, straight-talking, centre of the perfect nuclear family, and morally impregnable defender of the constitution and values of the USA. (Helpfully for us, he is also being stalked by a sentimental piano score, which tells us what to feel in any given scenario.)
Hanks’ Donovan is hired as the defence attorney for Rudolf Abel, and despite pressure from all quarters, he resolves to give Abel his constitutional right and defend him to the best of his ability. Donovan becomes the go-between for negotiations between the USA and the USSR in East Germany, and Spielberg sets his gruff, principled patriotism against the cynical realpolitik of the CIA and their Soviet counterparts. When Donovan casually tells the cold, hard-nosed agent Hoffman he has deviated from the negotiation plan, Hoffman suddenly becomes the frantic, nervy ‘plays-by-the-book’ partner in a 1970s cop duo, gesturing wildly to underscore the fact that this guy Donovan – he’s a real maverick.
There’s something that rankles in all this, especially in times like ours, and set against the brutal but sublime realism of films like The Revenant, Sicario and Gravity, or thoughtful, existentialist blockbusters like Birdman, or even the bleak, intelligent dystopia of Mad Max. Something in Bridge of Spies’ neat, sentimental style doesn’t sit quite right now. Too sure of its mechanics and method, too certain of its ethics, it lacks the grit, the subtlety and the genuine chiaroscuro that make a truly great film.
That’s not to say there isn’t brilliance in Bridge of Spies. The first sequence of the film is subtle, tense and almost completely silent – and it is some of the best Spielberg direction I’ve seen for years. The first shot is of Rylance, who it soon emerges we are seeing in a mirror. The camera then pans right and we realise he is looking in the mirror for a self-portrait, which we see to his right. We see Rylance, the mirror and the painting in the same shot and in a matter of seconds the cryptic, multifarious identity of a spy has been perfectly and subtly symbolised. What follows is an almost silent, nerve-rendingly tense dramatisation of the pursuit and capture of Rudolph Abel. It almost feels as if Spielberg has poured ninety per cent of his original, innovative creative energy into this first, brilliant sequence, then relied on the well-oiled machinery of the Spielberg production team for the rest of the film.
The other truly brilliant, engaging aspect of the film is the chemistry between Rylance and Hanks (again, this is unfortunately mostly limited to the film’s earlier scenes). When Hanks, the ubiquitous and almost effortless movie star, meets Rylance, the seasoned and meticulous stage actor, the tension almost fizzes from the screen. Rylance brings gravitas and meaning to Abel’s every minute, quizzical expression, which acts as the perfect counterbalance to Hanks, whose expansive and dominating Donovan seems with every gesture and intonation to be searching for a way into the contained, enigmatic spy.
Overall, this is an excellent Spielberg film, and well worth the watch. But expect the expected. This is a film that does not set out to challenge or question, and occasionally veers into cliché. It is sometimes thrilling, sometimes sentimental –but overwhelmingly neat. All ends tie up, and, predictably, the film ends with explanations of what happened to its real-life characters. But the question that lingered in my mind was not ‘what happened to Abel’ or ‘what happened to Donovan’, but: can a film this neat and clean-cut really speak to audiences in our untidy age?