Spielberg’s at the top of his game in Bridge Of Spies

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Bridge Of Spies
4.5 / 5

Over his long career, Steven Spielberg has developed two equally successful personas: Serious Steve, and Fun Steve.

Serious Steve has brought us Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln, while Fun Steve is responsible for Jurassic Park, E.T. and the Indiana Jones saga (which gave us one great film and three variously lame, inane and insane sequels).

Bridge of Spies fits in the former category, but it’s playful enough that it doesn’t feel like homework. Once again, Spielberg appeals to America’s best self, at a time when foreigners are distrusted and justice delivered through due process is too often sacrificed for hasty retaliation and revenge.

Tom Hanks is James Donovan, a sharp insurance lawyer who’s tapped by the American government to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Wolf Hall’s Mark Rylance) in the early years of the Cold War. Abel’s guilt is never in question: the case is more a matter of ensuring the punishment fits the crime.

Both the establishment and public opinion call for Abel’s execution but Donovan mounts a defence based on decency: If this is a war, shouldn’t we hope that our people are treated with humanity by the other side? And if so, how can we not do the same?

The strategy is successful — Abel gets life in prison — but it carries an unforeseen consequence: Donovan must negotiate a trade with the USSR for an American pilot who was shot down on Russian soil. And he has to do it as a civilian (as neither government would acknowledge their participation), meaning minimum protection.

Spielberg makes two points in Bridge of Spies. First, a country’s willingness to act within the margins of the law defines its character, and there are unforeseen benefits to doing so. Second, at an individual level it doesn’t matter what other people think if you know that what you’re doing is the right thing.

(And it’s fair to assume the filmmaker doesn’t believe the U.S. is behaving up to standard these days.)

Beyond the ethics lesson, Bridge of Spies is tremendously entertaining. Even though the real-life events that inspired the film are fairly well-known, Joel and Ethan Coen’s script crackles and the acting is top-notch. A subdued Hanks concocts an unlikely hero worth following, while Rylance’s barely perceptible mood changes are thrilling to watch. He provides both comic relief and emotional payoff without as much as lifting an eyebrow. Impressive.

As expected for a Spielberg film, the production design is remarkable. The reconstruction of post-war Berlin (both sides of the Iron Curtain) is flawless, as is the stark beauty of the compositions. Spielberg even allows himself a bit of fun with a nifty sequence involving a plane in freefall and a pilot struggling to abandon it.

Most of Spielberg’s usual team, such as cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, are on board here, although composer John Williams is missing due to Star Wars duty. But even that’s okay: The score by Thomas Newman is restrained, serving the story without overwhelming it in any way.

When Spielberg’s on his game, he simply operates at a different level than everyone else. That’s what’s happening here, making Bridge of Spies mandatory viewing.