Now this is confident filmmaking. But what else would you expect from the accomplished pairing of artful overlord Steven Spielberg and American everyman maestro Tom Hanks? Bridge of Spies is in its very essence a showcase of Spielberg’s directorial prowess; it neatly highlights the auteur’s ability to shape the mundane into the magical, of his expert craftsmanship behind the camera, of his articulate (if not subtle) storytelling capabilities. It is at its very core a reminder of why Spielberg has become a harbinger of prestige pictures and why Hanks will never be replaced. It is, without a doubt, an excellent film. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re looking at our first assured best picture nomination lock.
Bridge of Spies tells the true story of American insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) whose patriotism is leveraged in order to get him to defend an alleged Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (a largely excellent Mark Rylance). Spielberg smartly makes do with the “alleged” part as the picture opens with a taut sequence that has Abel slyly exchanging micro-texts while hot in pursuit by the CIA. Even though we know this man is “the enemy”, we’re led to respect him from minute one. Untenable though the case may be, Donovan’s superior (Alan Alda) frames the issue pertinently, “The American justice system itself will be on trial.” In short, if the man is seen to be receiving an unfair trial, it could spell certain doom for future captured US operatives – emphasis though is placed on the word “seen”. Donovan, being a man of full measures, takes the case, pouring himself into defending a man whose legal rights are as fragile as Russian-US relations while receiving flack from peers, his family and concerns citizens alike.
As can be expected, there’s elements of Amistad, Spielberg’s 1997 slavery courtroom drama, that bubble to the surface as Abel’s trial leans more towards miscarrying justice than upholding it. Just as Amistad dealt in the muddy waters of maritime slave rights, Bridge of Spies deals in the judicial tribulations of duty-bound foreign agents. The closer comparison though is to Spielberg’s more recent historical endeavor, Lincoln, in no small part because of the bulk of shady backroom dealings that occupies such a considerable hunk of the narrative. White men in black suits congregate on epoch-appropriate sets – the decorum of Bridge of Spies is both tactful and unobtrusive, contributing high repute to the period and setting of the historical piece aplenty – playing shadow games between bouts of political peacocking. As he continues further down the rabbit hole of upholding justice and “doing the right thing”, Donovan is frequently confused by whom he is meeting with and for what purpose. Said confusion is never experienced by the audience.
There’s a tendency in films that deal in disorientation to disorient their audience. Bridge of Spies never does. We’re left in the dark insomuch as Spielberg wants us to be. He controls our acumen like a benevolent puppeteer, feeding us appropriately-sized nibbles of his apple of knowledge. Whereas a lesser film from a lesser director might have let the bureaucratic discombobulation seep into the very foundation of the composition, like rainwater into a curbside couch, Bridge of Spies feels very much in control of its deceptive qualities. The result is savvy filmmaking 101; accomplished and articulate and proud.Scenes play out in typical Speilbergian pools of natural light. His frames burst with floods of daylight and streaks of sunshine poking and prodding their way through windows, reminding us both of the biting cold awaiting the assembly outdoors and the mounting pressure of the world at large. Just as Bobby Fischer fought WWIII on a chessboard, Hanks’ Donovan wages his own moral war with the Soviets and Americans alike. The shots are captured ably by director of photography Janusz Kamiński, who composes classical shots through the lens of contemporary photography. Bridge of Spies is – of course -shot on film. Kamiński and Spielberg juxtapose the elegant look of film with the flexible framing made possible by modern day digital photography to create stirring imagery of bleakness embodied as well as some truly picture perfect shots.
Let us not forget Tom Hanks who is by all accounts excellent as James Donovan. Hanks is amongst the thespian elite in Hollywood and it is performances like his here that solidify him as such an inimitable screen presence. He balances the casualness of everyman in with the weight of a hero almost effortlessly. He’s the All-American poster child of restraint; his coolness infects every scene he so comfortably flutters through. Hanks work here is award-worthy (as it was in Captain Phillips) though the absolute control over the bigger moments that he’s able to command makes the performance that much harder to recognize as great.
On the other side of the spectrum, Thomas Newman’s score has a John Williams-esque tendency to crowd emotional moments, adding melodrama to scenes already steeped in hard-won sentiment. While Hanks is the captain of subtlety, Newman could take a lesson or two in reigning it in.
Bridge of Spies also profits off a script co-written by the Coen Brothers (whose writing assistance on Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken failed to help distinguish that dishwater dull picture). Their comedic sensibilities are never far from the page though a certain rhetorical device threatens to get too cutesy upon its third repetition. And yet, Spielberg has so won us over that we’re willing to swallow whatever he’s willing to dish up hook, line and sinker. Like the singular act of courage displayed within, Bridge of Spies is an accomplishment by way of sturdy commitment. But it could not have been achieved alone. After all, what makes it work as well as it does is the first-rate union of across-the-board robust technical aspects, strong performances and a compelling, inherently irresistible, narrative told by a masterful filmmaker.
CONCLUSION: Steven Spielberg has an inimitable way of turning backroom negotiations into flashes of high tension and there’s no better example of this than ‘Bridge of Spies’. It’s the brand of Academy-certified historical drama that’s crowd-pleasing, incredibly well-made and features yet another knockout performance from Tom Hanks.