Thrust into the Cold war spotlight, a morally righteous American lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is handed the unenviable task of defending a recently nabbed Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Not one to shirk an issue even when told by his superiors to go through the motions with this one, creating the pretence of having given the evil Red a fair trial when anything but will be the case, Donavan can’t help but seek due process for his client. Neither the dubious assertions of his fearful wife (Amy Ryan) nor the evil eyes of his fellow train travellers can dissuade this man, morally bound as he is to serve Abel regardless of his political or other persuasions. Even after a verdict is predictably reached, Donovan’s duty doesn’t end as he’s used as a trump card by government agencies to procure a swap via negotiations with Russian and German factions after an American pilot is captured behind enemy lines.
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman, Bridge of Spies (2015) is more involved with creating layers of texture as its sometimes unwieldy narrative unfolds. It’s mostly bereft of huge dramatic moments, with the payoffs, when they arrive, the ones we’ve most likely predicted anyway. Neither is there much in the way of suspense or even big set-pieces, and yet there’s such a strong sense of pure storytelling compelling things along that these absences amount to relatively minor shortcomings.
Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski does a fine job of accentuating the superb production design of Adam Stockhausen, with his work in street scenes, full of interesting lower angles and jaunty movements, of particular note. The film’s visual aesthetic accurately reflects the retrospective sheen we expect of the era depicted. Another regular Spielberg collaborator is a notable absentee however. John Williams has scored all of Spielberg’s features since 1973, bar The Color Purple (1985). However, due to periods of ill-health and most recently, a scheduling clash with his work on the next Star Wars film due, the 83 year old had to hand over the reins on this occasion. The director lost nothing in opting for Thomas Newman, one of modern cinema’s finest and most distinctive musical voices. Though his compositional technique is very different to that of Williams, there’s no discordance in the way he builds the architecture of his score or treats key scenes, leading to a smooth and satisfying transition.
Though not fictional, Donovan feels like a thoroughly Spielbergian character, a man very familiar to American cinemagoers from almost any era; a man etched from a foundation of family values and validated by an unremitting decency and desire to passionately uphold the law. In some senses you could hardly imagine anyone but Hanks filling Donovan’s shoes, having long served, cinematically, this very same American ideal of possessing the characteristics his countrymen – steeping ever so briefly into the shoes of their better selves – would like to aspire to.
The rich supply of secondary players provide exemplary support, though Rylance gives a remarkably nuanced performance; so much of what he conveys emanates from what Abel doesn’t say. An accomplished and much-lauded stage actor, he’s rarely been seen on the big screen but physically he seems custom fit for this type of oddball, left-of-centre characterisation. Abel’s laconic demeanour and sparse, dry humour, it must be said, has the Coen brothers’ fingerprints all over it. Bridge of Spies (2015) is a long way from being classic Spielberg, however it’s certainly a notch above his recent endurance tests, the puerile War Horse (2011) and the monumentally dour history lesson, Lincoln (2012). What it lacks in dramatic high points and moral subtlety, it makes up for in a richly wrought world that is believably sustained for more than two hours.