New York, 1957. Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested and charged with being a Soviet agent. To ensure he receives a fair trial, career attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is persuaded to represent Abel in court. When an American reconnaissance pilot is later shot down over Soviet territory, Donovan is tasked with travelling to East Germany to covertly negotiate a prisoner swap.
Bridge of Spies is a masterful work of film drama assembled by some of Hollywood’s finest creatives at the height of their powers. That seems like hyperbole, but it’s true. The story, based on true events, is not innovative or surprising. No key individuals involved in the film are doing anything of a better quality than they have been seen to do in the past. Despite that, it is a simple fact that everybody – director Steven Spielberg, actors Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, and screenwriters Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen – has brought their A-game to the table. The result is a film that is beautifully staged, carefully paced and immensely satisfying to watch. For Spielberg as director, it is almost certainly his strongest work since Munich (2005).
In typical Hollywood fashion, Bridge of Spies compresses several years of action into an unspecified but much shorter length of time – as well as makes a few key changes to the real story. While it may irritate historians, it shapes the narrative into a tight, sequential series of events and helps to make a more interesting and suspenseful film. At the same time the screenplay sparkles with a mildly absurd sort of wit; it feels very much in keeping with much of the Coen brothers’ other screenwriting. This is a properly mature film: not mature in the sense of language, sex or violence, but specifically because it does not rely on such things. Instead Spielberg relies on a straight-forward story told well. It begins as a courtroom drama, extends to a patriotic paean to doing one’s duty, and ends as a Le Carre-esque espionage thriller in a wintry and unwelcoming East Berlin. Like Le Carre’s famous spy works, Bridge of Spies hums with the knowledge that a strong conversation between two interesting characters is just as dramatic and suspenseful as any standard action or chase sequence.
As James Donovan Tom Hanks works perfectly in his well-rehearsed and charming James Stewart persona: dogged good nature to the core, matched with a weary acceptance of a difficult task ahead. It is exactly the sort of performance that viewers take for granted, which would be a mistake: obvious or not this is one of Hanks’ best works of acting in a long time. To an extent he was overlooked in favour of Mark Rylance at the time: Rylance’s calm, amiable performance as Abel scored him an Academy Award. It’s a great performance to be sure, but I do wonder if he earned it more by Academy members having simply never encountered Rylance’s immense talents before.
The film’s period detail and rich atmosphere give a wonderful sense of the Cold War. Janusz Kaminski’s famous milky photography does not always fit the film, but it does here. Thomas Newman’s score is a little over-played, but that is mostly a quirk of Spielberg’s increasingly old-fashioned manner of film storytelling. There is nothing striking to be found here. There is no experimentation, or innovative technique. Bridge of Spies is absolutely what it appears to be: an interesting story told well by talented people. That is sadly still all too rare among Hollywood studio filmmaking.