I have a confession to make, I believe I am the only film blogger in the world who did not run to the theatre to see Spectre. With the James Bond franchise being an ever present yet relatively underwhelming presence in my life, I decided I would instead get my fix of Winter spy cinema in the form of Bridge Of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s latest offering and a picture whose cast and premise interested me a whole lot more than the usual Martini laden fare of the iconic British agent.
Bridge Of Spies tells the true story of a particular spy exchange that took place between the USA and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer, who is first tasked with providing a defense for suspected KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), and then with travelling to the dangerous epicentre of East Berlin to negotiate a swap for not one, but two American citizens who have been captured and held by Soviets and Stasi agents respectively. What this film lacks in the big bangs and scantily clad, poorly developed female characters that the aforementioned Bond revels in, it makes up for in intelligent dialogue, true suspense and an engaging narrative that demands the audience’s attention. Though the overall story of the narrative is a sweeping, almost epic drama from the court rooms of the United States to the cold, harsh barbed wire of the Berlin Wall, the heart of the film rests in the expertly crafted and equally expertly performed low key scenes of dialogue between powerful men who are negotiating powerful decisions and consequences. Whilst many Cold War pictures choose to very firmly establish a ‘good vs. evil’, ‘hero vs. villain’ type narrative, Bridge Of Spies instead revels in the light and shade that such a tense and unconventional conflict must have created. The film encourages the audience to see things from a human perspective rather than a patriotic perspective, and sympathy is evoked for certain characters in a way that only Steven Spielberg can do. Whether it’s making children cry with a plastic alien or portraying a harrowing and unforgettable experience of a WWII concentration camp, the man knows how to touch an audience, and though his work in Bridge Of Spies is perhaps less glaringly manipulative, there is not doubt that the old Spielberg magic is alive and well in 2015. Though the film runs rather long at nearly two and half hours, I can’t say that any particular sequences felt extraneous or bloated, and though I have read some reviews that claim the picture to be slow paced or even boring, the fact of the matter is that if you go in anticipating a cliche spy film, you will be disappointed, but if you go in hoping for an immersive, stylish, atmospheric spy film that opts for subtlety over explosion, you will come away extremely satisfied. Ultimately, Bridge Of Spies provides an enthralling snapshot of what it must have been like to be a ‘soldier’ of the Cold War, not battling in the trenches but instead battling with your word and bargaining for vital intelligence.
Tom Hanks is, as Tom Hanks tends to be, excellent in his portrayal of James P. Donovan, clearly a man of great character and one who acts very much as an audience surrogate throughout the film. It is Donovan and Donovan alone who gets to experience both sides of the bristling and tense relationship, and Hanks is the perfect choice to play a man who must be incredibly diplomatic and intelligent or else lose either his own life or the lives of the prisoners for whom he is negotiating. Making an equally big impact in less screen time is Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. To make a character whom the audience truly know is guilty likeable nonetheless is a great feat, and the credit goes both to the intelligent writing and to the incredible performance of Rylance. His subtle, unassuming characterisation provides a perfect on screen partner for Hank’s Donovan, and the two strike up an earnest chemistry that really holds the film together in its quietest moments. If anything, I would say that I would have loved to have been given more scenes of the two of them together, but alas, today’s audiences perhaps do not have enough patience for something akin to a two-hander.
Overall, Bridge Of Spies gives the audience a fascinating and engrossing insight in to one tiny aspect of the much larger and even more complicated entity that was the Cold War. With enigmatic and engaging characters and a narrative that simply gives the audience no other choice but to invest, the film’s high tension and warm wit provide a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile couple of hours of cinema. When it comes to the battle of the spy movies in recent weeks, I think I made the right decision.