Bridge of Spies (****)
Running Time: 141 min
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers and Alan Alda
(Movie House Cinemas, Dublin Road, Press-screening 23/11/2015)
‘We have to have the conversations our governments can’t.’
WATCHING Steven Spielberg’s latest feature, Bridge of Spies reminded me just how good a storyteller the director is. So often regarded as a purveyor of fantastically sugary-coated blockbusters, Spielberg’s latest collaboration with Tom Hanks (their fourth to date), falls into the serious, Oscar-worthy category of the filmmaker’s impressive back-catalogue. Much like his work on Schindler’s List, this film tells an important story in the history of American/USSR relations during the Cold War Period.
Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance attorney, given the thankless task of defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a captive Soviet KGB spy held under the custody of the United States. Soon however he finds himself in the middle of an even more complex political situation, when he’s sent to Berlin by the US Government and entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers—a pilot whose U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union—in exchange for his client.
There’s a real hint of Atticus Finch about Hank’s portrayal of the man, he’s not a spy or an all American hero; just an inherently decent man determined to do the right thing. He’s well aware that he’s fighting a losing battle, but he wants to ensure that due process is carried out correctly for his client; informing his wife over dinner: “Every man deserves a defence, every person matters.”
In a year that’s seen a string of espionage movies hitting multiplexes, from Kingsman to Spectre, there’s a real hint of John le Carré about Spielberg’s feature; but it’s less The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and more The Spy Who Came in and got the Cold. Joel and Ethan Coen, who are credited on the film’s screenplay, bring a wonderfully dark sense of humour proceedings. Admittedly they’ve taken a certain degree of artistic licence when bringing this story to the big screen; but it’s still effective and quintessentially Spielberg.
He’s a filmmaker who understands the power of the image, whether it’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or even Schindler’s List, there’s always moments within his films where he knows he doesn’t need words to evoke a reaction from viewers. Bridge of Spies is no exception, there’s a moment within this film, as Donovan rides on a train from East to West Berlin and watches a small group of men and women attempting to cross the Berlin Wall, it’s truly shocking and there’s not a word of dialogue spoken; poignantly the director nods back to this scene in the film’s finale.
The downing of the U-2 airplane, probably the only real action sequence throughout the entire movie, is a fantastically gripping set-piece. It’s probably the longest time we see Francis Gary Powers on-screen throughout the film; the writers don’t seem interested in telling his story, or even Frederic Pryor, the other American captive who Donovan attempts to save; they’re more interested in Rylance’s character, Rudolf Abel.
Described as the ‘good solider’ by Donovan, there’s a lovely relationship that develops throughout the movie between the counsellor and his client. Much of the film’s humour comes from their interchanges; when asked about his thoughts on Khrushchev, Abel tells Donovan:” The boss isn’t always right, but he’s still the boss.”
I’ll admit that Rylance isn’t an actor I’d seen much of before, other than last year’s instantly forgettable action movie The Gunman; but the Oliver Award winning actor is perfectly cast here. Much like Spielberg’s last movie Lincoln, there’s a real stagey feel to proceedings; men in the shadows having the discussions their governments can’t.
But for all the film’s lofty dialogue it never gets bogged down by the complexities of the Cold War time period. Like Munich it’s very even-handed in its storytelling approach, it’s by no means a flag-waving exercise for the American Government; the CIA in particular isn’t portrayed gloriously throughout the movie. The film’s central protagonist isn’t interested in the political chess game that’s going around him, he just wants to the right thing and in true Spielberg style; he just wants to get home from Berlin to see his family.
Bridge of Spies is by no means ‘classic’ Spielberg, but it’s a solid feature that reminded me of all the things I love about the filmmaker’s work; he’s an expert in telling an important story in both an entertaining and interesting manner. Viewers interested in the subject matter will probably get more out of this film, but I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a watch on the big screen.