Bringing together two of Hollywood’s biggest hitters – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks – for the fourth time, Bridge of Spies is a sharp, beautifully shot thrill ride, with Hanks at the peak of his powers as James Donovan, a Brooklyn insurance lawyer who is thrust into the centre of the Cold War when he’s sent to negotiate a prisoner exchange in East Berlin. Though it doesn’t quite instil the sense of peril it’s aiming for, this remarkable true story is sure to have you gripped to your seat throughout.
Though it’s not quite Christmas yet, Spielberg is already in the giving mood, essentially offering two films for the price of one here.
The first half of Bridge of Spies has the air of a sweeping courtroom drama as Hanks’ steadfast insurance lawyer is assigned the unenviable task of defending captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance). Spielberg is almost back in Lincoln mode here as the way Donovan defends Abel sets America’s concept of justice against prejudiced anxieties about national security during the Cold War.
The case is the most poisonous of chalices with the American people, including the judge presiding over the trial, already convinced of Abel’s guilt. Yet Donovan ploughs ahead, determined to ensure his client receives a fair trial, despite the terrible pressure it lays on his worried family. It’s fascinating and utterly absorbing, with enough left unexplored to easily fill an entire film all of its own.
If the second half isn’t quite as intriguing – it’s really just an excuse to mock the confusing lengths each side goes to avoid dealing with the other – the high stakes of the negotiations ensure you remain entirely gripped. After ensuring Abel escapes the death penalty, Donovan is once again called upon by the CIA, this time to negotiate a prisoner swap between two world powers. The Soviets have Francis Gary Powers, a pilot whose spy plane was shot down over their territory, and they want to trade for the imprisoned Abel.
The look of the whole film is breathtakingly gorgeous, with Spielberg delivering a lovingly crafted homage to spy movies. The director has fun indulging all the classic tropes – dead drops, silent phone calls, men wearing trench coats – yet such is his talent these never feel tired or hackneyed. The sequence where Donovan is tailed by a CIA agent through rain swept streets lit only by streetlamps brims with such unbridled enthusiasm, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the magic.
This sprightly tone might come as a surprise in a film that is essentially constructed of old men pontificating across tables, and that’s partly down to the writing. The Coen brothers were brought in to punch-up Matt Charman’s original draft and their paw prints are all over the dialogue, bringing their trademark off-beat wit to liven up the negotiation scenes.
Hanks excels as Donovan, doing what he does best by playing an honourable everyman who fights for what he believes is right. Spoken by lesser actors, lines such as “The Constitution: that’s what makes us American” might sound glib, but Hanks delivers them with an off-the-cuff charm that is both natural and believable.
Our own Mark Rylance is equally impressive in a stunning turn as Abel. Though he superbly underplays Abel’s intelligence under a deadpan façade, Rylance also imbues his character with a warmth that makes him easy to root for even though you are fully aware of his guilt from the start.
Bridge of Spies’ only real drawback is that it feels rather short of tension. For all its charm, wit and pleasing aesthetics, you never doubt that everything will turn out all right in the end, which causes the final few moments to drag just a little too long.
That’s the price of being in Spielberg and Hanks’ safe hands, though. These two masters of their crafts whisk you away with extraordinary stories before bringing you back safe and sound with a warm glow inside your heart. It’s good old-fashioned big screen storytelling, and it’s absolutely glorious.
Runtime: 141 mins; Genre: Spy Thriller; Released: 27 November 2015;
Director: Steven Spielberg; Writers: Matt Charman, Joel & Ethan Coen;
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell
Click here to watch a trailer for Bridge of Spies