When I first saw the trailer for this film, I was mildly intrigued, but I wasn’t in a rush to go out and see it opening night, despite my being a rather huge Spielberg fanboy and a fan of Cold War history. It seemed a predictable courtroom drama that would no doubt take its time to preach to its audience about unity and commonality in difficult times (no doubt capitalizing on current conflicts with hostile forces in the Middle East). After some time, though, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s much more than just a courtroom drama, and although it tends toward the predictable end of the spectrum, Bridge of Spies is beautifully shot and features some outstanding performances from some unexpected sources.
Inspired by true events, it tells the story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a successful insurance lawyer with a quick mind and a silver tongue who is tasked with taking on the thankless job of defending a suspected Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in open court as a show of American generosity and fairness to both the American people and to Soviet Russia who, many Americans believe, have their hand hovering over the button that will plunge them all into open nuclear warfare at any minute. But this simple publicity stunt becomes something much more dangerous when an American spy mission complicates matters, forcing Donovan into a deadly maze of misdirection and Cold War intrigue that will require all his skills to escape.
One thing that surprised me was that, while this can technically be classified as a thriller, it’s a very quiet (but not slow) film that plays out much like a game of poker wherein nobody is willing to reveal their cards, but they’re desperate to find out what the other side knows. It’s well-paced (despite its long run time) and takes its time to set up not only the personalities of the central duo of characters (Hanks and Rylance), but the texture of the Cold War in general.
In terms of characters, I was blown away by Mark Rylance’s quiet, complex performance. Tom Hanks is marvelous as always, warm and intensely likable, even when his character sometimes has to resort to the dogged tenacity of a used car salesman, but Rylance offers my favorite performance in the film. His character is neither wracked with overwhelming sorrow, nor fighting an intense personal battle, so I have the feeling that he won’t be given much attention at the Oscars (I hope I’m wrong), but he is completely captivating in every scene he’s in. He’s inhumanly serene, but behind all of his words exists an incredibly sharp intellect that he does his best to keep hidden behind a facade of bumbling innocence. The first few wordless minutes of the film feature Abel engaged in quotidian activities, but the audience knows immediately that there is something going on because of the depth of expression in his eyes. For a character who operates at basically one energy level throughout the whole film, Rylance imbues him with so much quirky nuance that you can’t help but like the guy, even when you doubt whether you should trust him or not. He’s just magnificent.
The script, written by the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman, features a healthy helping of drama peppered throughout with moments of quiet humor, though the second act tends to be rather predictable with characters saying “now, be warned that such-and-such might happen” and then said thing happens. I didn’t mind so much, but it did feel rather artificial in spots. If it’s an explode-y movie filled with robots and dinosaurs, then feel free to show all the brush strokes you want–I just want to see stuff blow up–but in a drama such as this, seeing the hand of the writer so obviously took me out of the story. The actor’s performances kept things together at the halfway point, and the third act was beautifully executed, so I wasn’t out of the story for very long, but it didn’t have the same organic texture that Tony Kushner’s script for Spielberg’s Lincoln had (though I must point out that this film felt more fun and less Oscar-bait-y than that film).
As always happens when I’m watching a Spielberg film, I found myself listening for John Williams’ score, but this one felt different. Towards the end, there’s a musical cue featuring a piano and oboe engaged in coy counterpoint that could only have been Thomas Newman (he does something similar in his score for Finding Nemo). I later read that, apparently, Williams was in poor health at the time and wasn’t able to work. The last time someone other than John Williams scored a Spielberg film was in 1985 with The Color Purple, so it was a surprise for me. I think Newman does a good job. It’s a quiet film and so the score is pretty spare, but when it does shine, it does so ably.
I can see why this film didn’t attract a huge audience. Surrounded by very loud blockbusters and very loud trailers for upcoming blockbusters, a slow-burning Cold War drama is bound to get lost in the scramble. But this is definitely something to rent when it comes out on blu-ray or when it appears on Netflix. It’s entertaining and satisfying, and the acting is top notch.
And so I leave you until next week when I will be examining the Hunger Games franchise. Take care!