Bridge of Spies is a gloriously glossy, impeccably produced espionage drama that spins a complex story of political intrigue and patriotism into timeless Hollywood entertainment, both for better and for worse, and reunites iconic director Steven Spielberg with contemporary cinema’s favourite everyman Tom Hanks. Most enticingly, though, it represents the big-screen breakthrough of acclaimed stage actor, and star of TV’s Wolf Hall, Mark Rylance, who has thus far worked modestly in the medium, and his deeply affecting performance is the film’s chief asset.
Inspired by real events and beginning in 1957 during the height of the Cold War, the movie focuses on James B Donovan (Hanks), an esteemed insurance lawyer who was part of the prosecution team during the Nuremberg trials. To the dismay of his family, this man of formidable principle and idealistic American values agrees to represent one Rudolf Abel (Rylance) – an unassuming painter and Soviet spy living in Brooklyn, who’s arrested at the film’s outset in a tense but one-sided game of cat and mouse, as he goes about his business nonchalantly.
Despite public criticism, and even threats, Donovan carries out his job tenaciously, pleading for Abel’s life after the hasty trial and attempting to have his conviction quashed in the Supreme Court. A bond develops between the men as Donovan comes to respect and even like the gentle, soulful, somewhat puzzling artist who’s quietly loyal to his country and has surrendered himself to his fate. When two Americans are captured by the Soviets and the GDR respectively, the stakes get even higher and, under clandestine instruction from the CIA, Donovan heads to a volatile Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange.
Sumptuously shot on 35mm by Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (an Oscar winner for his work on Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan) and with eye-catching period detail aplenty, Bridge of Spies undoubtedly looks the part. However, it’s sometimes a little heavy-handed in its compositions (a family tucked up on a sofa, a busload of scornful faces peering out from newspapers) and overwrought in its score, while the shift between the cosy glow of America and the cold grey of Berlin is rather crudely realised.
If it eschews the intellectual grandeur of the director’s last film, Lincoln, for a more accessible treatment, Spielberg should be applauded for coherently imparting a convoluted, international story and for skilfully showing how ideals can be compromised by the grip of paranoia. Expertly lightening the mood, it manages to draw out the farce in the escalating subterfuge that Donovan encounters and gives amusing prominence to his struggle with a cold. Such welcome touches of eccentricity show the influence of the Coen brothers, who polished a script by Matt Charman (Suite Française).
Although it’s almost boastfully balanced – with its magnanimous speeches, the way it carefully equates Soviet and American surveillance tactics, and in the sympathetic presentation of Abel – these good intentions are undermined by the inclusion of the brutal interrogation of an American prisoner without showing Abel’s corresponding questioning. Hanks is reliably affable but remains a touch too unflappable, diminishing the suspense. But the least successful and perhaps most recognisably Spielbergian feature is the unnecessary attention given to Donovan’s domestic life, which tends toward cliché and the saccharin.
Such missteps aside, Bridge of Spies is a predominantly classy and engrossing affair that has awards recognition in its sights, though not necessarily within its grasp. Rylance renders the mole-like Abel heartbreaking in his dignity and ordinariness; in deference to his fine work, the whole film seems to have been slowed to match the pace of his riveting performance, while its compassionate message is written all over his face.
Bridge of Spies is released in cinemas on Friday 27 November 2015