"The next mistake our countries make, could be the last one."
Spielberg has taken a lengthy break from directing following ‘Lincoln’ in 2012, but by no means is this legend of a director intent on slowing down. Spielberg has already signed on to direct the upcoming adaptation of Roald Dahl’s BFG, a science fiction project entitled ‘Ready Player One’ and another project by the name of ‘It’s What I Do’. So ‘Bridge of Spies’ may be more important as you think, as instead of simply acting as another staple of or a penultimate piece of Spielberg’s career, it could be the start of a whole new are for him.
Based on the true story of James Donavon (Tom Hanks) who is assigned by the government to stand in as defence attorney for a Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War. But matters only become more complicated for the lawyer when he is then tasked with negotiating the exchange between that same prisoner and a captured American agent.
Ever since ‘Schindler’s List’ in 1993 the primary focus of Spielberg’s work as a director has been on these historical dramas. From ‘Saving Private Ryan’, to ‘Munich’ and then most recently ‘Lincoln’ they have all been excellent achievements for a director that was once upon a time dismissed as a purely commercial filmmaker. Unlike many of his films ‘Bridge of Spies’ features a much slower pace that is rife with intelligent writing and impeccably crafted scenes. Looking back on the other Hanks/Spielberg collaborations this one is not as action packed as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ nor as thoroughly entertaining as ‘Catch Me If You Can’ (we won’t mention ‘The Terminal’), it is effortlessly enthralling and wonderfully cinematic.
You can sense the craftsmanship and ingeniousness throughout in the direction of the film, with Spielberg pulling out all of his directorial brilliance to stage this story. It almost seems painless in his hands as even a conversation in a small room can become profoundly cinematic. But then again it rarely feels that way when actually watching the movie, as the style takes a more nuanced tone, as does everything else for that matter (there’s no score for the first 27 minutes). But this is to allow the actors to convey the tension through their performances, as they raise pressure through conversation, with the director only stepping in to emphasise the established mood.
That mood is one of a genuine feel for the era. Instead of it simply being a group of actors pretending to be living in the Cold War the tiny details flesh out this world and the subtlest movements of each actor somehow convey it perfectly. At the forefront of these performances is Tom Hanks, embodying that everyman quality as we see him (like so many other classic Spielberg and Hanks characters) caught in a series of events greater than themselves. But rather than simply being a cog in a machine they defy expectations and do not just what is expected of them, they do more. As opposed to just presenting a show trial for the captured spy, Donavon is determined to defend him thoroughly in a court, using the constitution and the law as his weapons. It’s credit to his performance that he can make an insurance salesman so likable.
Mark Rylance is on hand to provide a complete polarity to Hanks’s acting style. They contrast each other to such an extent with such brilliant subtlety that just from their conversations you get a sense of the tension between two nations and the staggering differences between them. It raises many questions concerning the nature of those differences and relations, as Donavon himself is forced to confront the fact that America as a concept exists purely within the constitution, yet he lives in a world where even the government is neglecting the document and there’s no sentimental or patriotic flag waving to sour that point.
Maybe the film gets a tad too repetitive in its second act, spends a bit too long trying to answer the question of whether Donavon will do the right thing or raise tension from such a proposition when we already know the outcome, even without historical knowledge. But when all is said and done this is still a brilliant screenplay, penned by the Coen brothers of course and though I would be lying if I said the Dude makes a cameo or Officer Gunderson pops in, their quirky and dry sense of humour is clearly visible.
It’s easy to forget the joy of watching a film that is made by people who really thoroughly know what they are doing. As he has done many times Spielberg makes history achingly human, and always captivating.Result: 8/10