Bridge of Spies
Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a tale of hope and integrity amid a backdrop of Cold War era paranoia.
It all begins when a man named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested under suspicion of being a Soviet spy and awaits trial to determine the extent of his guilt. In an attempt to prove morally superior to the Soviet Union, the American government enlists a lawyer with integrity names James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to present the appearance of a fair trial.
With this being the Cold War, Abel’s guilt is all but determined behind the scenes which makes Donovan’s best efforts almost a waste of time. He knows that this is the case but does his job in full anyway in the hope that someone will see sense and deliver the right verdict.
Donovan is instantly likable much like most characters played by Tom Hanks. His performance is wonderfully subdued as he calmly yet confidently puts forward his point of view while arguing his case to the various people. Hanks projects a lot of integrity, sophistication and intelligence through Donovan which always makes him an engaging presence to see on screen.
I can’t help but compare James B. Donovan to the To Kill a Mockingbird character Atticus Finch. The situation of having to defend a man who will never be found innocent but doing everything in his power to make sure that he is given the best chance is remarkably similar. His values that allow him to see people for what they are rather than their race or nationality are also very similar and the loss of reputation for him due to the work he has chosen to undertake is notably comparable. This film is based on real events but I’m unsure how close to the real narrative the film sticks but the comparison is unavoidable.
Mark Rylance is similarly excellent in the role of Abel. He is never angry at the situation and approaches it all with a quiet dignity. Many of the best scenes are between Hanks and Rylance as their characters build up a friendship through their shared ideals and calm temperament.
The film shifts gears when an American Spy Plane is shot down and the pilot, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured. At around the same time an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is captured in Berlin. Donovan is tasked by the U.S. government to act as a negotiator for the release of these two men in an “unofficial” capacity. The whole idea of unofficial being laughably transparent in this case.
In many ways the second half feels like a very different film as the first is focused on Donovan establishing a relationship with Abel while doing what he can to convince people that he should be free while the second half is much more focused on the political machinations preventing a simple dialogue from being established.
I would say that the first half is better but I really enjoyed the bulk of the film. The running time is fairly excessive with some long politically charged dialogues dragging on for longer than they should. In general the film is well put together and makes some really powerful points about prejudice and paranoia that happen to resonate loudly in the current climate. It’s a well time film for showing how people can give into misguided preconceptions and makes the case for why that is a bad idea really well.
One thing I really appreciated is that the U.S.A. isn’t established as being on the side of the Angels or some kind of righteous force that goes up against the evil Soviets. The political situation is left as complicated as it really was with the Americans being as much of a guilty party as anyone. It’s refreshing to see such an honest appraisal that isn’t flattering to the Americans. In a lot of ways Donovan is fighting to make sure his country are being as fair as the other side.
The cinematography is beautiful with a lot of cold colours emphasising the bleak situation as Donovan is in Germany. Dim lighting promotes a really unwelcoming and unsettling atmosphere to reinforce how murky the political situation is.
Beyond the aforementioned politically and morally charged conversations there are a number of standout scenes such as the Berlin wall being built and a beautifully shot plane crash that manages to be really tense as it clings to the perspective of the ejecting Powers who knows that this will end in his capture.
Other than being too long and some conversations dragging on a bit there’s little to criticise about this film. Donovan’s family are completely underdeveloped beyond the reminder that he will be able to go home to them once his work is complete. His relationship with his wife and kids feels a little too preachy and never comes across as if they are a real family unit. Aside from these small issues it’s an engaging and thought provoking film that warns us to be cynical of politics.