The art of solid storytelling has returned to movie theaters with Steven Spielberg’s Cold War spy thriller Bridge of Spies; a taut, layered and assured take on a true-life espionage tale.
The film sees the legendary director reunite with Tom Hanks for a fourth time, and the ever-reliable pair deliver a flick that is destined to be praised as one of the best of the year.
There are many reasons for me to recommend Bridge of Spies, so here’s five that, in my opinion, should have you rushing to the cinemas:
5. An acting masterclass from Mark Rylance
Without a doubt the biggest reason to see the film is is Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall), as he disappears into the quietly duplicitous role of Rudolf Abel, a low-level KGB sleeper-agent, who was imprisoned by the Americans in 1957, the winter solstice of the Cold War.
Rylance chooses not to play Abel as a figure of menace, but rather as a character who is imbued with reserved calm. He’s a sallow man with a tight frown and lilting eyebrows, and the ragged dignity and deep resolve that Rylance displays reverberates throughout the film — even with the he’s absent from the screen.
Rylance’s admirable performance as Abel will likely see him nominated for best supporting actor and an Oscar win would not be undeserved.
4. Tom’s turn as the ‘everyman’
Tom Hanks is undoubtedly Steven Spielberg’s great stoic hero. From Saving Private Ryan‘s schoolteacher solider who struggles to maintain a semblance of sense during the chaos of World War II, to Catch Me If You Can‘s befuddled federal agent, Hanks is able to imbue each performance with folksy likability, quiet dignity and steely resolve.
In Bridge of Spies, Hanks continues this with his turn as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer faced with the thankless task of defending a Russian spy who the whole of America knows to be guilty.
While most espionage films send in a super spy to save the day, Bridge of Spies sidelines the glamorous and instead, through Hanks, celebrates the valour of ordinary men. Hanks plays Donovan with a stirring conviction leavened by enjoyable zest, making the part not only believable but iconic.
At its core this film is not about rescue efforts or prisoner swaps, Cold War paranoia or jingoistic patriotism. What we thrill to is the characters — it’s Rylance vs Hanks: the lauded but largely unknown British stage actor, up against the consummate Hollywood pro. But Hanks and Rylance are perfect in their parts, and while Hanks could arguably do this kind of role in his sleep, he does it beautifully all the same.
3. A powerhouse script
There is a lot of story to tell in Bridge of Spies, from Abel’s highly publicised trial and the threats Donovan encounters for defending him, to a prisoner swap behind enemy lines.
The beauty of the script by playwright Matt Charman (which was later polished by the Coen Brothers), is that while it’s inspired by the real-life exploits of the attorney-cum-international-negotiator James Donovan, you can still hear echoes of our own modern era throughout.
The writing is as stoic as Donovan, and at two and a half hours I was pleasantly surprised that Bridge of Spies still feels like a little film. Stripped of unnecessary subplots, it instead bases its first act on the standoff between Rudolf Abel and James Donovan, a relationship which is every bit as keyed up and gripping as anything on the muffled streets of Cold War Berlin or New York.
The second half of the film concerns a secret prisoner exchange between the CIA and the KGB, a tense and often disarmingly funny cat-and-mouse game in which Donovan, our heroic insurance lawyer (who comes armed with little else than his wits and a bad cold) finds himself having to outsmart both sides in order to fulfill his mission and serve his firmly held values.
2. A superbly crafted film
Thomas Newman’s score is subtly majestic, Michael Kahn’s editing is precise and disciplined, and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is the most polished and gorgeous old-school shooting you could possibly hope for. Borrowing heavily from Noir classics like The Third Man, Kaminski often lights the actors’ profiles with a harsh white glare so they appear two-faced while the shiny-wet street scenes are drained of pigment until they could pass for black-and-white. The art direction in all departments is staggeringly beautiful, and help provide the film with added weight and gravitas (not that it really needed it).
For his part, Spielberg excels by deftly navigating a dense story with ease. He’s also able to stage each scene with a grandeur, something which seems to come naturally to the director. Another triumph is Spielberg’s insistence on eschewing the tropes of the spy genre. Rather than examining the shifting loyalties of film noir, Spielberg purposefully drains the plot of intrigue. It’s clear that Abel is guilty from the first scene, and the audience is never in doubt as to where anyone stands. With the character motivations and film themes firmly established, Bridge of Spies is free to ask a more pressing (and modernly relevant) question: are the ‘good guys’ that much better than the bad? While the film is a tale of American exceptionalism, it’s a quietly cynical one which underlines the slow creep of tyranny in an American system that supposedly eschews it.
1. An oldie but a goodie
Bridge of Spies has been somewhat dismissively labelled “your dad’s favourite movie of 2015”, but I don’t see this as anything close to an insult. Sure it’s ‘old-fashioned’, but in the way that a really good novel is. It’s a hefty tome which is told in full sentences, with proper paragraphs and chapters (thanks to Matt Charman and the Coens). The characters are beautifully fleshed out and superbly acted, with both Rylance and Hanks turning in masterfully restrained performances.
It’s a remarkably good film, one which is both enormously entertaining and ultimately very moving. I have little doubt that Bridge of Spies will earn a few Oscar nominations, including one for best picture. A must-see on the big screen and one of the best films of the year.
Bridge of Spies is currently playing in US, Australian and NZ cinemas, and will be released in the UK on November 27.
Image source: 20th Century Fox.