Steven Spielberg is one of the great living directors, and arguably the most well-known director and one of the most influential men in Hollywood. Tom Hanks is one of the great living actors. Bridge of Spies marks their fourth collaboration together as actor and director, preceded by Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal. It is a compelling Cold War drama, and it features typically great work by Hanks and Spielberg and the cast and crew, but it feels oddly out of place.
Like Catch Me If You Can, the film is based on a true story from 1957 involving an insurance lawyer who gets caught up in the espionage, politics, and posturing of the Cold War. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the aforementioned lawyer who is tasked with the unenviable position by his government of defending a Soviet spy, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) in court in order to give the accused a fair trial. This obviously results in Donovan becoming unpopular in the eyes of the public, resulting in threats against his family, his wife Mary (Amy Ryan), his oldest daughter Carol (Eve Hewson), and his two younger kids. Around the same time this is happening, a group of pilots, including Frances Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and Joe Murphy (Jesse Plemons) are recruited by the C.I.A. to fly U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union at high altitudes and take photographs. Powers’ plane gets shot down and he is taken captive by the Soviets and Donovan is called upon by the C.I.A. to negotiate a prisoner exchange in East Berlin, right as the Berlin Wall is being finalized. When Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a US student studying abroad, is detained in East Berlin by the Stasi, the East Germans try to use him as a bargaining chip to get a set at the table in their claim for legitimacy, spearheaded by a Mr. Vogel (Sebastian Koch). Under the supervision of C.I.A. Agent Tompkins (Stephen Kunken), Donovan has to navigate treacherous international waters to try to negotiate a peaceful resolution.
Spielberg does a fantastic job of setting the film properly in its time and place, from the outfits to the Cold War paranoia on both sides of the negotiation to something as small as the school lessons Donovan’s son receives about nuclear blasts. This effectively sets the mood of the film. When the film switches to Germany, the Berlin Wall is being built and completed, and the film truly conveys what a barrier it represented, between two halves of a city, and two world powers and the emotionless way that a dividing line was being drawn and how it would impact people on both sides of that divide. While the film has little actual espionage outside of the opening where Abel is captured, the film works in the narrative structure of a classic espionage film, culminating in a classic spy thriller trope at the actual “bridge of spies.”
Hanks gives a good performance here. Donovan is cut out of the Atticus Finch mold, a lawyer with integrity who believes in the moral certitude of the law. This is what causes him to come into conflict with others throughout the film. Even when police officers are called to his house because someone shot at his windows for defending a spy, a few of the policemen think what happened to him is justified. While his law firm takes the case of Abel just to curry favor with the government, Donovan can’t help but become invested in the case, even to the point of appeal when everyone just wanted him to go through the motions. In Berlin, his insistence on doing the right thing bring him into conflict with the Soviets, the East Germans, and the C.I.A. when he insists on making the negotiations about Powers and Pryor when the C.I.A. only really cares about Powers. The law is real for Donovan while for many of the people he deals with they are a hindrance, a formality to be disregarded when necessary, or something to be worked around while fulfilling the appearance of justice.
Mark Rylance is also really good as Abel. The rapport that Abel and Donovan build up between themselves over the course of the film gives it a necessary bit of life and levity in a film that at times gets too stuffy and serious. Rylance’s Abel is very pragmatic and even-keeled. Other supporting roles are all solid, though Amy Ryan and Eve Hewson feel underused as the Donovan home life is given only slightly more than the bare minimum of story time. It is a great bit of meta-casting, though, with Hewson, as she is the daughter of Bono, and the film involves the U-2 spy planes where U2 gets their name. But I digress. Stowell’s Powers is thinly sketched too, despite the background given for him and his mission.
There are times that Spielberg becomes a little heavy-handed with his message. The C.I.A.’s disregard for Pryor stresses the importance of the mission over the individual, making them as cold and calculated as their Soviet counterparts. There are several scenes on subways in New York City and in Berlin that are cliché in the way that the last two subway moments call back to two previous moments on a subway. And there is no doubt a message in there about disregarding the rule of law and spying on citizens with Spielberg saying we should appeal to our better angels rather than give in to our baser impulses when it comes to international diplomacy or spying on the citizenry.
Despite the good performances, the considerable talent involved in the production (the script got a touch up from the Coen brothers), and the competence of the story, Bridge of Spies feels like an afterthought of a film. Given the name recognition of both Spielberg and Hanks, it is a movie that has received a lot of positive critical buzz, but significantly less public interest than their previous collaborations. It is the kind of film that will likely garner an obligatory Oscar nomination of two, but will not be a serious contender for any of those nominations. It is more entertaining than any film about lawyers and Cold War posturing probably should be, but registers less than a Spielberg-Hanks collaboration probably should too.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars