In Hollywood, there exists more than a few director-actor pairs that promise box-office successes. Martin Scorsese has Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. Quentin Tarantino has Samuel L. Jackson. Christopher Nolan has Sir Michael Caine. And Steven Spielberg has Tom Hanks. Together, Hanks and Spielberg made the iconic and harrowing Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, a wildly entertaining biopic about one of the largest instances of credit fraud in the nation, and now the Cold War drama Bridge of Spies. Not only does Spielberg direct Bridge of Spies, but the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers penned the film as well.
In the film, insurance attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked by the United States government to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a suspected Soviet spy, during his trial. Donovan reluctantly accepts the job, taking it up because he feels an obligation toward fulfilling constitutional due process. Donovan meets Abel and begins to feel an admiration and respect for Abel, seeing that he is an ethical man doing the work his country had assigned him to do. Abel loses his trial and is sent to prison.
Bridge of Spies immediately joins the ranks of Spielberg’s largely successful historical pieces: Lincoln, War Horse, and Schindler’s List, just to name a few. At times the film’s tone may seem a bit overdramatic, pinning almost every character against Hanks’ motives. Bridge of Spies, however, highlights the unnecessary and fanatic paranoia that was held by both American and Soviet citizens throughout the Cold War, as well as the unbelievably degraded and tyrannical state of East Berlin during its Soviet occupation. While the film might not cover as large a scope of historical importance as some of Spielberg’s other historical dramas, this in no way undermines the audience’s investment in or suspense over what unfolds on screen.
In Soviet Russia, A U.S. intelligence plane is shot down over Soviet territory and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), survives the wreckage and is taken hostage by the Soviet government. The Soviets then covertly ask the American government if it would be interested in trading its spy, Abel, for the American spy, Powers. The U.S. is reluctant to send a U.S. government representative to East Berlin and instead asks Donovan to go over, as an American citizen and not a government official, to negotiate terms for an exchange between the two countries.
Hanks and Rylance give the two most intriguing and compelling performances in the film and the relationship between their characters is the most dynamic and essential aspect of Bridge of Spies. Their relationship and understanding of each other allows the film to have the conversation that is at its forefront. The film tries to make the point that we are all just people, despite the differences that our countries distinguish for us and the cultural limitations we put on ourselves. Donovan and Abel obliterate these differences and recognize the good intentions and loyalty each hold for their families. The two see that despite their ideological differences, a worthwhile friendship can be formed between them.
Every other character in Bridge of Spies obstinately plays against this point. Whether it’s the judge trying to make shortcuts in the judicial process to put Abel in the electric chair or the ruthless CIA agent that asks Donovan to break his officiated confidentiality with Abel, not a single person understands what Donovan is trying to do. Even his wife and kids don’t support him. Yes, it might be the point of the film that everyone in the country was frantic about Communist agents and the possibility of war in general, but it detracts from the experience when every single person excludes Donovan. Maybe it’s realistic, maybe it isn’t, but this kind of stubbornness makes the antagonistic atmosphere of Bridge of Spies seem overdone.
One strong point on the setting of Bridge of Spies is its depiction of East Berlin. It looks like a depleted hellhole. Buildings are still in ruin in the wake of World War II over a decade earlier, barricades are set up internally all throughout the area, and the Berlin Wall is actively being put up. When Donovan uneasily roams the streets, the audience understands that this is literally the last place he would ever want to be and this serves to increase the tension of Bridge of Spies rather well.
While Bridge of Spies has some tonal complications that are hard to ignore, it is still a great film. Hanks does an extraordinary job of making his character seem realistic, which is difficult when he is placed among so many overdone personas that could make his character appear as an objective counterweight to their ideals. Also, the conversations and camaraderie between Hanks and Rylance makes for some of the most compelling dialogue in film in recent history.
Featured Image by Touchstone Pictures