A feel-good biographical drama set in the cold war era, Bridge of Spies, featuring a sterling star cast is probably Steven Spielberg’s best film in recent years
Steven Spielberg renews his long-standing association with the ever-dependable Tom Hanks yet again after The Terminal with Bridge of Spies, an atmospheric espionage thriller narrated in the background of the intriguing Cold War. Spielberg has always been alternating his crowd-pulling fantasy adventures like Jurassic Park, Jaws, E.T and the Indiana Jones films with the more moody and grounded biographical dramas, that were high on emotions without the typical ‘Spielbergian’ popcorn movie elements (Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, Munich, and Lincoln). Bridge of Spies, based on true events that occurred between 1957 and 1962, falls under the second category and goes to prove, yet again, Spielberg’s capabilities in bringing the genre alive with his trademark dramatic realism.
Based on the 1960 U-2 incident during the Cold War, the film follows the travails of lawyer James B. Donovan, who is commissioned to negotiate the release of Francis Gary Powers—a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace,—in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a captive Soviet spy held under the custody of the United States. Having been belted with an overdose of quirky spy-action thrillers in recent times, Spielberg’s latest tryst with history comes off as a expertly crafted and welcome throwback to old school counter-intelligence thrillers, without the customary distractions we have almost become used to.
In that sense, it’s also a kind of a misfit. While it deals with the dark sides of Cold War paranoia filled with murky spy games and nuclear war stakes between two super-powers, it never lets the proceedings get too dark or layered. Though the infinite political abysses and morally grey areas are admitted and hinted at skillfully, they are never dug into with bleak finality. Yes, there are hard-hitting references to lock up abuse, stunning arguments about the relevance of American justice and loads of bureaucratic callousness, but in its essence, it’s a handsome tale about a man, whose unflinching belief in his ideals and the system, gloriously pays off. Donovan is someone who would do something just because it’s the right thing to do, and it does lend itself well for a feel-good drama. In that way, the film not only celebrates the master negotiator and his resolute tactics, but also instills the hope that goodwill does triumph over everything, no matter what!
Brilliantly written with their trademark offbeat wit by the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men) and Matt Charman, Bridge of spies adapts freely from history, adding a little more drama and sweetness to reality, but not sounding overtly sentimental at any time. The proceedings mostly unfold as two distinctly unique halves – while the first sees Donovan giving the convicted Russian spy a spirited defense, the second half deals with Donovan being recruited by the CIA to cut a deal with the Soviet Union by formally trading the spy for the American pilot.
The film opens with a solemn jaded man, Rudolf Abel, starring into a mirror. He is painting a self portrait, with a look that borders on a scowl. There is a sense of detached quietude about him, which reflects in the narrative. There is no background score or dialogues. Nothing about him seems even remotely juicy, leave alone dangerous. He seems like the remnants of a man worn out by age and conventions. If you encounter him on the roads, you would probably not reward him a second glance. When he retrieves a secret message from a park bench, the character kicks off, in style. When the CIA finally storm into his apartment, he is stranded expressionless in the bathroom in white underwear. Spielberg stages this sequence with such visual finesse that it’s almost impossible to take your eyes off the screen. In addition, Mark Rylance playing Rudolf Abel literally walks away with the first half of the film with his magical deadpan demeanor, simultaneously confusing us with flashes of sharp intent. The zen-like collectedness with which he asks for his denture and hands over his cigarette butt to an official, before proceeding to destroy an evidence is proof enough of the Coen brothers’ wit working within the confines of Spielberg’s vision. You have to watch him mouth the lines “Would it help”, every time Donovan questions his composure in the face of an impending disaster, to understand what I am talking about!
On the other end of the spectrum, Tom Hanks playing the renowned insurance lawyer, Donovan, gets a less showy (and in fact amusing) introduction when he is seen explaining to another lawyer why an accident, where a car had hit five people should be considered as one incident and not five. This droll reference is brilliantly utilized in the latter half of the film, when he argues with the Berlin Government, that the trade off is not one for two, but in fact just one for one. Spielberg and the writers do not take much effort in developing Donovan’s character over the course of the film, but instead rely on Tom Hank’s potential to pull off a man who doesn’t change much; but instead stands strong as his principles are put to test, first when he is fights for the life of Abel, the man who had almost become the most hated person in the US, and later the safety of Frederic Pryor, an American student, who gets accidentally arrested in Berlin during the partition. Tom Hanks is particularly impressive in the scenes where he gives a rousing speech in the Supreme Court on why Abel shouldn’t be sentenced, and in the final stretches of his Berlin mission, where he decisively gets the job done.
The entire film is strewn with such juxtaposition of seeming antithetical elements, suggesting something like a skewed celluloid chirality – Abel and Donovan, the CIA and Donovan and of course, the temperament and attitude of the two spies. Interestingly, despite these asymmetries, Spielberg uses breathtaking visual parallels to strike hard – shots of Donovan watching through a train window, first of the shocking violence on the couple attempting to climb the Berlin wall and then, of a friendly New York township, where Teenagers casually climb neighborhood fences. He also presents the minimal action sequences extraordinarily well, like the one in which the United States plane is shot on Russian airspace. Janusz Kaminski stunning cinematography and Thomas Newman’s background score are pitch-perfect, especially in the above mentioned plane crash, the Berlin wall sequences and in the climax, when the Glienicke Bridge literally becomes the ‘Bridge of Spies’.