I was struck by an unusual thought as I sat down to watch Bridge of Spies in the cinema last week. Here was a new movie, written by the Coen Brothers, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg, and yet I knew almost nothing about it other than its cold war setting. How did a film of this pedigree manage to arrive feeling so under-the-radar?
The film begins in 1957, with an almost wordless opening sequence. We follow a middle aged man named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) as he goes out to retrieve a hidden secret message from a New York park bench under the guise of painting the scenery there. After returning to his sparse apartment, he is able to read and later destroy the message as he is arrested and accused of being a soviet spy.
Now in his fourth collaboration with Spielberg, Tom Hanks plays upstanding Brooklyn insurance lawyer James B. Donovan. He’s asked to defend Abel on the grounds that even though everyone thinks he’s a spy, it will send a positive message to the Soviet Union if Abel receives a fair trial in the US. Abel refuses to admit guilt and doesn’t co-operate or hand over any information to the US government, but he warms to Donovan’s calm no-nonsense approach and agrees to be his client.
At this point I thought Bridge of Spies was going to be a courtroom drama. Donovan strives to do his duty as a lawyer, and the best job he can to defend Abel against the obvious fact that the jury and the judge have already concluded that he’s guilty. However this proves to be quite a short section of the movie, Abel is promptly found guilty after only a brief few courthouse scenes.
The film then goes on to examine another aspect of the legal proceedings as Donovan makes an off-the-record case to the judge to not give Abel the death penalty. His fascinating arguments stem from three primary factors, that Abel is a soldier following the orders of his country and should be treated as such, an apparently genuine respect he and Abel have for one-another, and more pragmatically, the potential advantage the US would have in keeping Abel alive should one of their own men be captured by the Soviets.
Spielberg has examined war from various different perspectives over his career, most famously in his two WWII epics Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, but Bridge of Spies is a war film with a completely different focus to almost any I’ve seen before; it’s all about the process of negotiation. Spielberg takes a more understated directorial approach than usual here, with this film not especially containing any obvious Spielberg hallmarks. A handsome if bleak period drama, only a terrifying plane-crash sequence looks like something out of a blockbuster movie.
This event winds up being of vital importance, as the pilot is Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Spielberg intersperses short scenes of Powers and some other pilots being recruited for a top-secret mission to fly U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union throughout the first half. While these initially seem unrelated to the events of the main story, they contain some frightening details about US’s approach to the cold war; each pilot is provided with a cyanide pin and instructed to commit suicide if they risk capture.
In his first mission, Powers is shot down and soon captured by the Soviets, bringing Donovan’s theoretical scenario to life. Both sides now have an enemy combatant in custody, and they both want them returned. Donovan is chosen to act as a civilian negotiator on the part of the CIA, to go to Berlin and try to arrange an exchange.
There are shades of Schindler’s List to the Berlin scenes, in which we see the Wall being built and the treatment of the civilians by the military. In one shocking moment, Donovan witnesses a small group of people being gunned down as they try to cross the wall at night. There is another sub-plot introduced during the wall scene that feels a little underdeveloped though. Donovan is not just negotiating for the return of Powers, but also for a naive American student called Frederic Pryor who is arrested after trying to bring his girlfriend into West Berlin. We understand plenty about Powers’ capture and conditions but comparatively little of Pryor’s.
The tense negotiation scenes, as Donovan has to wander the hostile, snowy landscape of East Berlin to find and speak with contacts are masterfully filmed by Spielberg, again employing more classical style and avoiding obvious showmanship. The acting is all top-notch, Hanks is perfectly cast as the idealistic Donovan, working as hard as he can to find the best outcome possible as he genuinely seems to value human life. As Abel, Mark Rylance creates an intriguingly sympathetic and very unusual portrait of an “enemy” spy, challenging the audiences’ perception of him in contrast to the public opinion of the time.
Spielberg is again working with many of his excellent usual collaborators such as cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, but there’s one notable absence. This is Spielberg’s first film without composer John Williams in thirty years, and only the third overall (counting Duel). Thomas Newman has been tasked to replace him and he delivers a solid score more in line with his usual, softer piano-led work than attempt anything obviously aping Williams that suits the film well.
The other interesting credit on Bridge of Spies is the aforementioned fact that two of its credited screenwriters are Joel and Ethan Coen. While they have almost as good a record as any working filmmakers when they direct their own material, their writing for others has never been essential, with tedious Oscar-bait war film Unbroken being the latest example of this. I don’t know how much of the screenplay is theirs, as they were reportedly brought in to re-write an existing script by Matt Charman, but what’s there is all very strong if somewhat anonymous. There’s very little of their distinctive voices to be found, and only a scene when Donovan meets Abel’s “family”, all of whom are obviously pretending, that I was reminded of their participation.
After a three year break, it’s surprising to see Steven Spielberg return with such an apparently low-profile film, but he still displays a confident command of the screen. Bridge of Spies is an elegant drama exploring a more unusual side of warfare, bringing a real-life story to the screen that should probably be more well-known.