Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Scott Shepherd, Austin Stowell
Making the right and moral decision in a high-profile situation will find detractors each step of the way, especially when the choice goes against the grain. In the grander context of a republic, it reflects the values of a governing body and where fervor meets the right thing to do. Not many can stand up and do the right thing, but we get to see a shining example of it in the exhilarating and incredibly tense, Bridge of Spies.
Known for mostly working in insurance law, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) gets assigned to defend an accused Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). While others see his work to be an obligation for the appearance of fairness, James attempts to actually defend his client, much to the surprise of the entire nation. When an American soldier gets captured in Soviet territory, James must find a way to then exchange Rudolf for the captured soldier.
Everything about Bridge of Spies feels incredibly straightforward. The story does not deliver any grand twists and it defines much of what the latter half of Steven Spielberg’s career has become. Fortunately, for this film, everything about the story works on a narrative and technical level to tell this story in an excellent way. It takes place during the Cold War, which brought the height of nationwide paranoia and a level of nationalism that has been unmatched for a while. It makes the standpoint of James trying to actually defend his client to be seen as radical. It swiftly shifts the story into its major themes.
One of them being the illusion of fairness through the process of Rudolf’s trial and James’s attempts to do on his behalf. The second Rudolf gets arrested, his guilt is presumed by the entire American public and the defense by James becomes simply a formality to show the Americans provided due process to this foreign agent. The film surprised me in the way it displays the lack of suspicion of whether or not Rudolf served as a spy. The answer becomes evident and we all know his true work, but it all becomes about the process. When James attempts to discredit parts of the prosecution’s case, which would work in other cases, his actions are thwarted by a judge and jury looking for blood the entire time. It opens up a larger conversation as to what this paranoia turned everyone into and how civil liberties can be thwarted when enough people see the opportunity to strike.
With the case garnering plenty of traction nation and worldwide, James’s attempts to do his job makes him public enemy #2 after Rudolf, obviously. An honorable decision by James, which then puts his own family in danger and in the firing line physically and socially. All of this alone would make for a good film, but Bridge of Spies then shifts to when James must help negotiate a trade that would bring home a captive soldier in exchange for his client, Rudolf. The moments in West and East Germany carry such a strong level of tension. Every scene becomes uncomfortable because James sits essentially alone behind enemy lines where an inconvenienced leader could decide to hold him imprisoned. This isn’t Jason Bourne on some mission abroad, this is a father, most likely in his 50s simply trying to bring home a young man serving his country.
Tom Hanks portrays the honorable James and does so with the excellence one can expect with this legendary actor. He embodies the loving stature Hanks always brings with his roles along with the smooth operator his lawyer character is at his core. James has quite the silver tongue and must navigate every conversation carefully because it could cost him his life and possibly start an actual war between the Americans and the Soviets. Hanks brings a level of comfort with his performances that manifests itself in a warmth needed for the cinematography choice made in this feature. With a good portion taking place in a snowy Germany, everything has harsh blues and feels incredibly cold, which highlights the demeanor of everyone in the feature. Everyone in this negotiation battle wants to figure out how this can benefit them, and James finds himself to be the only person left with a soul in the entire process. Not hard to do when it involves the CIA and the Soviets.
A feature like Bridge of Spies continues the run of Steven Spielberg, as he tells stories that personally interest him and those in his demographic. His days of making something like Raiders of the Lost Ark are well behind him. Even his attempts to make something in that realm do not have the same genuineness, much like the horrible Ready Player One. He brings excellence to a straightforward feature and proves he still has the juice to elevate the material he’s given. His collaborations with Tom Hanks never disappoint and they put together a stout and important feature.
Even with its rather large runtime, Bridge of Spies cuts whatever fat its story has and presents a vital and compelling feature for everyone to experience. The level of paranoia and patriotism feels ominous and can be on the verge of occurring again if we sit idly by. It results in yet another tremendous collaboration by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, as they know how to bring forth gripping stories in an exhilarating manner.