Some will call Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies a “lower/mid-range” Spielberg movie. They may even call it “old-fashion.” Yes, Spielberg’s movie is classically made, with a long, deliberate pace, and it is visually low-key. It’s the type of movie that draws in the Clint Eastwood movie-going crowd and perfectly suited for a cross-generational audience the way a History Channel special is. However, sometimes old-fashioned ways are the only ways to tell a story about old-fashioned values and make it seem refreshingly timeless in our modern era.
Bridge of Spies continues Spielberg’s dramatic idiosyncrasy about the value of human life and the importance of moral conviction. Like Lincoln and even Saving Private Ryan: he’s using history to illuminate his personal view of what American heroism entails. The difference between those movies and Bridge of Spies is that those were about “great men,” whereas the latter is about an ordinary one — an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn named James B. Donovan. In the late 1950s, Donovan was chosen by his peers to represent a captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel. While most of Donovan’s colleagues (and even the presiding judge on the case) want him involved purely to give Abel’s trial the veneer of due process, Donovan actually mounts a proper and rigorous defense of his client, at considerable risk to his reputation and his family’s safety.
Donovan is played by Tom Hanks, and while this isn’t Hanks’ greatest performance, it’s very much on par with what the actor is known for doing best. For 30 years, Hanks has been Hollywood’s foremost performer that can capture the general understanding of everyman decency. As Donovan, he gets to play perhaps the strongest expression of those principles — an American movie hero who warrants comparison to Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men or Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Donovan is someone who perseveres; not for glory or greed, but for the radical reason that it is simply the right thing, nay, the constitutional thing to do.
Hanks plays off of Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, a solemn man whose face never betrays any emotion (he is, after all, a “master spy” and not “innocent”). Rudolf is definitely America’s enemy in this time and film but he is given a relative sense of honor by acting with respect and discipline. This case is not necessarily about guilt, innocence or even “rights” so much as it is about the integrity of the law. Donovan isn’t so much trying to get Rudolf off scot-free so much as making an impassioned argument in favor of “the rulebook.” The rulebook (aka the Constitution) is what makes America great. If they ignore that, they are no different than Abel’s employers, or anyone else who seeks to undermine the system. If that sounds corny or maudlin, or sanctimonious, you might want to skip Bridge of Spies.
While this is mid-tier Spielberg, that still makes it any other of the filmmaker’s “all-time” great. In terms of filmmaking; the composition, editing, direction, not to mention cinematography are all operating at precise and affecting levels. In one scene and many others, Hanks is dressed in a dark blue suit with white shirt and red tie; though its hues are muted by Janusz Kamiński’s inky cinematography, Donovan is literally draped in the colors of the American flag. Scene after scene finds Bridge of Spies is filled with smart, subtle details like that one. This is far from Spielberg’s most exciting richest dramatic film, but in every single moment you feel like you’re in the hands of an absolute master of the cinematic form (thanks to the team Spielberg assembled to collaborate with), from the lighting to the camera placement to costume and production design to the actors’ comic timing to the magnificent cuts that connect the various plot threads. The only area where it seems the film goes weak is with regards to underutilizing Amy Ryan in the role of Donovan’s wife Mary (she does have one beautiful scene at the end of the film), but the rest of the supporting cast is outstanding, including Alan Alda as a partner in Donovan’s firm, Peter McRobbie as the head of the CIA, and Sebastian Koch as an East German lawyer.
The film then switches from a legal drama to a political thriller involving exchanging political prisoners across the Iron-Curtain, and it all blossoms to life. Bridge of Spies’ vision of early ’60s Berlin is an absurd place, populated by eccentric bureaucrats, cheerful secret agents, and roving gangs of street toughs. Many of them feel like refugees from a Coen brothers movie and rightly so since Joel and Ethan Coen are credited as the co-writers of Bridge of Spies’ screenplay (along with Matt Charman). The Coens and Spielberg make an interesting combination. Spielberg’s never been afraid of sentiment, and Bridge of Spies has a lot of it, but the Coen’s snappy, snarky dialogue makes the overwhelming earnestness palatable to a modern cynical movie-goer.
The movie may be set in the 1950s and ’60s, but Bridge of Spies’ message clearly resonates with modern political issues about right to privacy, equal justice, and homeland security. The words “Edward Snowden” and “National Security Agency” are never spoken in Bridge of Spies, but you can easily find parallels. The means by which Spielberg argues his case for the rule of law and the re-enforcement of human decency is admittedly laced with a fair amount of schmaltz. However Spielberg knows that in times like these, maybe schmaltz is not such a bad thing after all.