Bridge of Spies

Review by David Ehrlich @davidehrlich

Directed by

Steven Spielberg

Starring

Amy Ryan Mark Rylance Tom Hanks

Anticipation.

A new Spielberg film is always cause for celebration, but his last Tom Hanks joint was The Terminal.

Enjoyment.

Part spy story, part chamber piece, all gripping.

In Retrospect.

As a Cold War film, it’s strong. As a window into Spielberg’s mind, it’s essential.

A Cold War spy thriller from Steven Spielberg that’s as sleek, robust and alluring as a vintage Rolls Royce.

If daddy issues were the unifying motif of Steven Spielberg’s early films, his later work has been defined by an obsessive preoccupation with the value of a single human life, the peerless populist greying into a more philosophical matrix of concerns.

How many soldiers are worth putting in harm’s way in order to save Matt Damon? How many murdered Olympians are worth decades of escalating reprisals? How many Jews can a gold ring buy from the Nazis? “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire,” Itzhak Stern tells Oskar Schindler, that Talmudic maxim serving as the most explicit indication that Spielberg isn’t just the people’s champion, but also God’s accountant.

Bridge of Spies once again finds Spielberg trying to balance the scales, this delightful dad movie clarifying that the director isn’t trying to determine the value of a human life, but restore it. It’s a warm look at the Cold War that uses Janusz Kaminski’s beloved floodlights to illuminate a footnote of American history, the film begins in New York circa 1957, where an unlikely bond was forged between a New York insurance lawyer and the Russian spy he was hired to defend in court.

An electric opening chase sequence introduces Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, endearing), a soft-spoken Irishman whose orders come from behind the Iron Curtain. Following Abel’s capture, the American government decides that a fair trial would be good PR, and they know just the guy to argue his side and roll over at the inevitable verdict. Enter family man James Donovan (Tom Hanks, decency rubbed into every fold of his Shar Pei face), who pisses off his entire country by treating Abel’s case with the same care he would any other.

From there, the film morphs from courtroom drama to espionage thriller as Donovan finds himself flying to Berlin in order to secretly negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Russians: they’ll get Abel, and the US will receive recently downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in return. At Donovan’s insistence, the deal eventually thickens to include an American exchange student who’s imprisoned without cause while trying to flee East Germany before it’s sealed off.

Scripted by Matt Charman and glazed with a (sporadically evident) rewrite by the Coen brothers, this genteel saga of moral equivalence, told through a series of rich background negotiations, is sustained by its conviction that wars are waged between governments and not people. Donovan, played by the ultimate everyman and saddled with a runny nose just to underscore his plainness, is a man like any other. Standing next to the Berlin Wall, its cement still wet, Donovan’s sensible civilian nature distances the artificial border from historical fact and restores it to the realm of madness.

Bridge of Spies may not be anyone’s favourite Spielberg movie – his inevitable slide towards mawkishness is more frustrating here than usual, and a protracted final scene stumbles as it tries to squeeze in a mess of contradictory ideas – but it’s still greased with a master’s touch, and few spy movies have ever been so enjoyably determined to see through all that cloak-and-dagger bullshit.

The value of a life, Donovan affirms for his director, is equal to that of one’s own. And in the process of making that argument, he typifies another gradual change in Spielberg’s films: once he told stories about ordinary men being confronted with extraordinary things – now his ordinary men create those extraordinary things for themselves. It’s the difference between climbing aboard an alien spaceship and passing an amendment that restores human rights to an entire race of people. Call it the banality of goodness.

Published 24 Nov 2015

Anticipation.

A new Spielberg film is always cause for celebration, but his last Tom Hanks joint was The Terminal.

Enjoyment.

Part spy story, part chamber piece, all gripping.

In Retrospect.

As a Cold War film, it’s strong. As a window into Spielberg’s mind, it’s essential.

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