Review: Bridge of Spies (2015)


This review outlines the broad strokes of the narrative, which might forewarn the attentive reader who wishes to enter the film “unarmed.”

The first time I saw Bridge of Spies, I thought it was very enjoyable and well-acted, but disjointed. Now, after my second viewing, I also admire the structure. I don’t know whether Joel and Ethan Coen, who worked on a draft of the screenplay, are to credit, or whether writer Matt Charman shaped the narrative, but the somewhat fragmented structure of the plot does recall the Coens’ idiosyncratic, sometimes fractured narratives, which often convey a sense of lurching fate. In any case, Spielberg’s classical style is on full display. He has crafted a film set in the 1950s that resembles the seemingly effortless workmanship of 1950s Hollywood, while offering biting critiques of twenty-first century US policy. However much credit the Coens and Spielberg deserve, though, Tom Hanks is the pillar of the film, and if Spielberg’s classicism reminds us of bygone elegance and expert ease, Hanks reminds us of the pleasure of talk and negotiation in a thriller—not just action and violence. The best part is that all these pieces—script, direction, acting—all come together, making Bridge of Spies a very sturdy Cold War spy movie.

Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, a Brooklyn insurance lawyer who distinguished himself at Nuremberg. Donovan is asked to defend a recently captured Russian spy. The film begins with a meticulous cat-and-mouse sequence depicting the capture of the spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). (On a side note, I love Rylance’s dry facial expressions as Abel.) The next hour focuses on Donovan’s defence of Abel during his trial, which is intercut with scenes showing the recruitment and training of US spy plane pilots. The second half of the film brings the two threads together in East Berlin just as the wall is coming up, where Donovan is sent to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

Bridge of Spies is another example of Spielberg’s thematic interest in the law. The climax of the first hour is a trial before the Supreme Court, and it features the requisite big speech, which functions, in part, as an indictment of many of the United States’s current measures in the War on Terror. A great deal of Spielberg’s Amistad (itself a disjointed film) involves a trial, and Lincoln is obsessed with the procedural workings of government and legislation. Bridge of Spies also functions as another installment in “Spielberg Presents: Landmarks in American History.” If one division of Spielberg’s canon is primarily concerned with high entertainment, another section seems to cover key events and important figures in American history: D-Day, the African slave trade, Abraham Lincoln and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. In these big American films, the nature of freedom and justice, and the question of what can or should be sacrificed to maintain them, tend to be central themes.

Bridge of Spies maintains that the fair treatment of prisoners, even one’s ideological enemies, is an essential facet of the American way of life—in fact, it’s what distinguishes the United States from its opponents. Donovan explicitly argues this in the trial scene before the Supreme Court, but it also comes out in later contrasts between how prisoners are handled. That said, I contend that it’s inaccurate to say that Spielberg unabashedly or uncritically heaps praise on the United States of America in his big American films. Like Frank Capra (who, I would argue, is also frequently misunderstood), Spielberg actually presents a very critical view of America, particularly in Bridge of Spies, a film in which a good American man is lambasted for respecting due process, and where so many members of the government and military are either nefarious or prejudiced. Like Capra, Spielberg puts his faith in a few good individuals and their actions, not in institutions, or policies, or movements in and of themselves. Both Capra’s and Spielberg’s admiration and praise for the potential in individuals might be especially American, but it’s not an idealization of the actual country, rather the possibilities it represents.   

It’s normal to comment on Spielberg’s eye for beautiful and dynamic compositions. While Bridge of Spies is certainly elegant and often gorgeous (I enjoyed the cold, grey look of East Berlin, and love the canted shot looking down on the bridge late in the film), one shouldn’t overlook Spielberg’s interest in talk. Think about how often Spielberg has a character recite a story, which he tends to capture with minimal visual fuss. I’m thinking of Quint’s famous story of the sinking of the U.S.S.Indianapolis in Jaws, or Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller talking about his life back home in Saving Private Ryan, or the many stories Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln recites. Despite his visual prowess, Spielberg knows when to step back and simply frame a talented actor talking about something interesting. In Bridge of Spies, Hanks’s Donovan is an expert negotiator, and it’s a pleasure to listen to him work with words.

It’s also easy to overlook how good a film Bridge of Spies is when compared to Spielberg’s best. I don’t consider Bridge of Spies a “return to form,” though, as many critics have touted it, because I frankly don’t believe Spielberg ever lost it. Bridge of Spies is an incredibly solid second-tier entry in Spielberg’s canon. And second-tier Spielberg is as good as the best of the rest.

9 out of 10

Bridge of Spies (2015, USA/UK/India)

Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen; starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, and Alan Alda.