Steven Spielberg is one of the major reasons I grew up loving film, most notably E.T. and Jurassic Park. His films involving Tom Hanks are always great as well (Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal, and Catch Me If You Can). So I was excited to see what they could produce working together again.
Bridge of Spies focuses on an insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks) during the Cold War in the 1960s. The United States has captured a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) but they need to still treat him humanely and offer him legal counsel, so they ask Donovan to serve as his lawyer. The intention was just to show that things are fair but Donovan begins to see that things aren’t as black and white as they appear. Soon after, an American pilot is captured in Russia, and Donovan is brought in to navigate a potential trade. We also have Alan Alda and Amy Ryan in the mix.
This movie is basically split into two. The first half is the courtroom case over if Abel is indeed a spy, while the second half focuses on this trade negotiation. The first half I found far more compelling, as Hanks really embodied the moralistic Donovan. When everyone else saw a spy, he saw a human, and no one is better than Hanks in a role like that. Is it a stretch for him? No. He might get nominated for an Oscar but I doubt he’ll win, as he doesn’t really show anything we haven’t seen already from him.
It takes someone strong to play off of Hanks and here we have some perfect casting, as Mark Rylance plays the Soviet spy Abel. Rylance is celebrated in stage shows mostly, so I’m not very familiar with his work, but he is perfect here. The definition of subtle. He doesn’t say much but he brings the dialogue to life, when he does speak.
And as expected, Spielberg delivers a solid film as a whole. It looks great, has stellar pacing, and he manages to deliver an allegory to current issues without being (too) heavy-handed. The message he wanted to convey here, one about treating others with basic respect, is very poignant today, as the issue of communism in this film could easily become Islamophobia, anti-immigration, or any other number of current social issues. It shows that we haven’t really come that far.
What doesn’t work?
While the first half I really enjoyed, the second half taking place in Berlin wasn’t as engaging for me, even though the stakes were undoubtedly higher. I think I struggled with remembering historical facts, such as which side of the Berlin wall was which, as well as I struggled with acronyms and definitions for the various factions that were in play. A more in-depth introduction at the start of the film could’ve set a better stage for this.
Bridge of Spies is a great film, most notably for the performances by Hanks and Rylance. It looks great, feels great, has some stellar emotional moments in the climax, and ultimately is a rewarding true story tale. It’s not a necessarily exciting film but if you enjoy historical drama and great performances, Bridge of Spies will do the trick.