Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons, and Austin Stowell
Recently Tom Hanks went on The Tonight Show and did a Kid Theater skit where he performed scripts written by elementary school kids who were told to write a scene for a movie called Bridge of Spies. Most of them involved either a bridge made of spies or spies on a bridge. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the climax of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies and a group of spies met on a bridge. This is no slight on the actual film’s screenplay as the scene is actually quite riveting, but more a testament to this film’s transparent nature in that what you see is what you get – quite rare for a “spy” film.
This is the fourth pairing of Steven Spielberg as director and Tom Hanks as actor. Each film they’ve done together has been a period piece of sorts with a true story at its core. Bridge of Spies is no exception. In it, Hanks plays James Donovan, a partner in a successful New York insurance law firm at the height of the Cold War. When a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI, Donovan is recruited to provide a “credible defense” in a trial designed to railroad this spy right to the electric chair. Donovan’s duty as an American trumps his hesitation for taking a losing battle and he agrees to take the case. From this point on, Spielberg’s film ceases to be a “did he or didn’t he” film (he did), and begins a fascinating exploration into the murkiness, hypocrisy, and complexity of espionage during one of American history’s most turbulent periods. Abel is not depicted as an enemy but as a cautious, thoughtful man doing an important job for his country in a time of unrest. His story is paralleled by another depicting the training and deployment of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot for the CIA who is later shot down in his spy plane over Russia. In the wrong hands, these stories could come across as preachy or downright absurd, but thankfully the Coen brothers crafted the screenplay and tell an intelligent story about perspective rather than a heroic tale of valor. In one early scene, Donovan is seen discussing one of his client’s responsibilities for paying a claim to a victim who wants five times the settlement because a driver ran into five motorcycle drivers. Donovan goes on to explain that to the victim five things happened but according to the insurance policy, one thing happened. This conversation holds new meaning when Donovan’s life as one type of lawyer leads him to act as an entirely different type of lawyer and that two sides of a seemingly black and white conflict are actually one.
Powers’s and Abel’s stories converge with a prisoner exchange plot that holds Donovan firmly in the middle. Hanks embodies Donovan’s struggle with great appeal. He is born to play roles like this and Spielberg knows it. In fact, Spielberg’s cinematic voice has been diminished lately by the enormous shadow cast by his actors and screenwriters. With Lincoln it felt like Spielberg simply had to put the camera on a tripod and let Daniel Day-Lewis have his way with Tony Kushner’s script. The same formula is at work with Bridge of Spies. Spielberg is certainly gifted at his attention to detail as this film drips with authenticity, and some of his transitions are enlightened and stark, but ultimately this film’s success rests on Hanks and the screenwriting of Charman and the Coens. Also, Rylance’s subdued performance as Abel is understated but pivotal. Several times throughout the movie, he is relegated to utter the schmaltzy phrase, “would it help?” as a little inside joke between Donovan and himself, but it works every time.
Furthermore, Bridge of Spies follows some conventional storytelling arcs, but the spy genre is not one easily transformed. The key to Bridge’s success is that its agenda is not to trick the audience but rather to let us hold all of the cards and experience the weight of each decision that is made. That along with some brilliant set-pieces, scenery, and top notch performances from Hanks and Rylance allow Bridge of Spies to work very well. B+
Bridge of Spies is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 21 minutes.