There’s undoubtedly a lot to admire in Steven Spielberg’s latest film: Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies is certainly well-crafted, like a solid piece of oak furniture, or a Paul Weller album. The acting is commendable, too, and in writing about the diplomacy of the era Matt Charman (whose screenplay was ‘polished’ by the Coen Brothers) seems aware that the GDR/Soviet relationship is almost as interesting as the frosty, delicate one between America and its Communist enemy. The Coens have been credited with injecting the occasional joke or running gag into the screenplay, which is a general assumption that may be doing Charman a discredit, but whoever is responsible has done a good job, as this film seemed to effortlessly draw laughs from the audience in my screening. In short watching it is undoubtedly a pleasure, but I’ve been trying to put my finger on the reason (or reasons) I don’t love it for three or four days now, and haven’t quite managed to do so. I suspect it’s something to do with the predictability that comes with watching Spielberg’s films these days, which creeps in here and there, but even as I type this sentence I feel a nagging sense that I should just suck it up and concentrate on appreciating the many positive aspects of this filmmaker’s work.
Based on real life events, the film stars Tom Hanks in a kind of 98% Optimal Tom Hanksness role as insurance lawyer James Donovan, who in the late 1950s was asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, excellent) after he was caught by the FBI in Brooklyn. It’s one of those everyman roles Hanks has spent a career perfecting: wife (Mary McKenna Donovan, played by Amy Ryan), kids, hat, raincoat, briefcase, ability to identify what makes the U.S. Constitution important, skill to gently make others aware that they’re abusing it, etc. etc. Donovan is a decent man who is asked to step up and act at a level that’s really above his pay grade, but as it’s his government doing the asking he duly obliges with only a modicum of grumbling, even when some nutcase shoots up the family home. Hanks is so good at this kind of thing you’d be forgiven for thinking it was easy.
The first half of the film largely stays with Abel and Donovan, who get on well despite the pressure and discomfort the trial brings to both of their lives, though sporadically we drop in on Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a rookie American pilot about to fly a spy plane over Soviet territory, and later an American economics student based in Berlin called Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). It’s when the action fully moves to Germany that the three separate strands of the plot converge, and the second half of Bridge Of Spies is mainly concerned with the political wrangling as Abel is swapped for the two American men. This Donovan negotiates with a mixture of bemusement and opportunistic chutzpah, and the screenplay smartly turns the ‘fish out of water’ element of the first half on its head, with Abel’s American sniffle transferring symbolically to Donovan as he passes back and forth across wintry Berlin.
There are times when Spielberg attempts to treat the US and Soviet governments in an even-handed way, such as the inclusion of separate scenes that suggest Abel and Powers endured similarly one-sided show trials. Occasionally he lets the facade slip, for example when he directly compares the treatment of Powers at the hands of the KGB with the treatment of Abel at the hands of the FBI; the former is tortured with water and his captors cruelly deny him any sleep in order to try and break him, while we see Abel relaxing and carrying on his hobby of painting while being held in a cell in the US, as opposed to undergoing any rigorous questioning about his activities. Even as Spielbergian celebrations of supposed American values go that’s a little hard to swallow, but it’s no surprise to see this kind of juxtaposition, which emphasises a level of fair play and kindness that the old enemy is seemingly incapable of. It’s also no surprise that any American behaviour going against the grain is largely supressed or unseen, unless the perpetrator can be gently lectured or cut down in a face-to-face meeting with Hanks’ Donovan (cue the brass in Thomas Newman’s stirring soundtrack). Elsewhere a few scenes are included that reflect badly one way or another on some of the Germans and Russians involved in the negotiations, such as Sebastian Koch’s lawyer Wolfgang Vogel or Mikhail Gorevoy’s KGB chief Schischkin, but they do tend to add to the light, comic touch, at least, and are balanced out with some cold comments by Scott Shepherd’s CIA operative. Labouring the light and dark / good and bad comparisons, when Abel and Powers are exchanged on the Glienicke Bridge – a remarkably tense scene, given that the actual outcome of the swap is well-known – the screenplay implies that the American soldier is returning to warm, caring agents and military staff, while the fate of the Soviet spy is less clear.
Of course a partial defence against any historical inaccuracies or accusations of bias is there for all to see in the film’s opening credits: Bridge Of Spies is a drama that is based on true events, which in many eyes exonerates the writers and the director from criticism. This declaration does at least make it easy to overlook some of the more blatant fabrications that have been included to add more supsense and a few extra thrills: a couple of scenes in which shots are fired didn’t actually happen in real life, or at least not to Donovan, but I believe the unofficial 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that at least two guns must appear in any film emanating from Hollywood, and Spielberg has to comply with that here. Facetious remarks aside I was impressed by his direction at times – hard not to be – and his ability to subtly suffuse the film with its share of tension and action (a run-in with an East German gang, a pilot trying to escape a burning plane, Abel being tailed through the subway, etc) is clear for all to see. It’s an amusing film, very well acted, and certainly a classy affair in terms of the costume, sets, soundtrack, cinematography et al; I’m just a little turned off by the way Bridge Of Spies compares the two opposite government agencies, even though the focus is primarily on the individuals who are pawns in their game.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Will Rogers.
Cinematography: Janusz Kamiński.
Editing: Michael Kahn.
Music: Thomas Newman.
Running Time: 141 minutes.