Bridge of Spies

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 16, 2015

Tom Hanks stars in 'Bridge of Spies'
Tom Hanks stars in 'Bridge of Spies'  (Source:Dreamworks)

Ah, The Greatest Generation. A cohort of Americans who lived at a time when men were men, the Cold War was as uncomfortable and yet as stabilizing as permafrost, and justice was for all -- not side-stepped for suspects deemed "enemy combatants" and shipped off to places like Guantanamo Bay.

Steven Spielberg's new movie "Bridge of Spies" has more than a hint of 1940s and 50s-era filmic quality about it. The themes and handling are mature; the pacing and characterization are given ample breathing room. The dialogue contains some quirky tics, some loops and recursions and scintillations that spark out -- but once you see the names Joel and Ethan Coen on the credits as co-screenwriters (along with Matt Charman), that clicks, too. The Coens have played in this era's sandbox before, in the gangland thriller "Miller's Crossing" and in the comedy "The Hudsucker Proxy."

You wouldn't have thought Tom Hanks to be the best leading man for a Coen Brothers-infused script, but here he is, once more under Spielberg's direction as he as in "Saving Private Ryan" and "Catch Me If You Can," and he's solid and sincere, radiating conviction. You can almost see Hanks melting into Spielberg's directorial embrace; he surely never seemed this at home in all those terrible '80s comedies, or in "The DaVinci Code" and "Angels and Demons," or even working with the Coens in their 2004 remake of "The Ladykillers."

Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance lawyer handed the task of defending Col. Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a British defector to the Soviet Union who now lives in New York and spies for the Soviets. Donovan is reluctant to accept the assignment at first, but once he does he's determined to see it through. American justice must be served, and that means giving even a spy like Abel a vigorous defense and the benefit of the doubt.

Those sentiments are hardly shared by those around Donovan. The judge in the case (Dakin Matthews), his colleagues, a CIA spook sent to quiz him and even his own wife (Amy Ryan) all wonder why he's so dedicated to defending a man who is, after all, working for the enemy. Donovan's reasons are simple, and unshakable: Everyone deserves the same due process. That lies at the core of the social compact by which we live; it's the stuff of civilization.

Even when a hostile judge and jury find Abel guilty, Donovan convinces them to spare the man's life. He has both humanitarian and pragmatic reasons for this; what if, he argues with the judge, the Soviets were to capture a high-value American asset one day? Wouldn't it be prudent to have "their guy" safe in storage and ready to be offered in exchange?

It's an insurance man's way of thinking, and it comes in handy when that's exactly what happens a couple of years later when American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and ends up in a Soviet prison. The CIA reasons that it's only good sense to send the man who foresaw the situation, and so they task Donovan with negotiating for an exchange of Abel for Powers.

Viewers who have some familiarity with cold war politics and history might recall at least the general outline of the story: The exchange takes place in a dramatic manner, with the two prisoners walking toward his respective group of waiting countrymen on a remote bridge in the dark of a wintry pre-dawn morning. But there's a further twist you might not have known about: Even as the Berlin Wall is going up, an American student with an East German girlfriend manages to situate himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) ends up in the clutches of the East German police, who accuse him of spying and lock him up.

Once Donovan learns about Pryor, he's determined to get both men back for the price of a single Russian operative. Over and above that, having gotten to know Abel, and viewing him less as a monster than a soldier who is simply dong his duty for his side in the cold war, Donovan takes personal satisfaction in working to arrange for Abel's freedom -- if sending him back into a communist country can be called that. But, as Donovan notes more than once, Abel has conducted himself "honorably," never giving in and never wavering in his convictions -- and never giving any outward display of worry. ("Would it help?" Abel asks on three separate occasions, when Donovan marvels that he's not sweating over one desperate situation or another.)

The plot's beat-by-beat progress is steady, smart, and spare, but the production has a lavish quality about it, with period details so precise that even the details jump out at you as belonging to a different time -- almost a different world. Donovan embodies a certain sort of Americana, a wholesome decency and dedication to all things upright; he himself is so upright that Abel dubs him with a nickname -- in Gaelic, I think -- that means "A Man Who Stands." Hanks adopts a posture that fits: He's like a tree, calmly rooted in his bedrock beliefs even when the Russians and the East Germans are posturing and playing mind games (and his own fellow Americans are behaving in ways that aren't much better).

With "Bridge of Spies," Spielberg's evolution continues into a mature style distinct from his early successes. His filmic techniques here are less overt, but still effective; his grasp of story and sweep are intact and yet contained within a sense of economy. He matches the Coens' signature verbal circumlocutions and bookends with visual equivalents. The result is a movie that feels like another sort of bridge altogether -- a bridge to the kinds of Hollywood projects they used to make, and hardly do any more. Even the feature's shot-on-film aesthetic, richly busy with grain, has a voluptuousness to it that crisply clean digital photography can't match (and Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski seems to be enjoying it, too).

Like "Lincoln," "Bridge of Spies" is a film to be enjoyed on every level. There are nits to be picked (heavy-handed editorial choices that clobber us with too-overt social comments dot the film), but like a bolt of silk you might rather simply pass this flick through your fingers and let it thrill you with its giddy cinephilic pleasures.



James Donovan :: Tom Hanks
Rudolf Abel :: Mark Rylance
Thomas Watters :: Alan Alda
Mary Donovan :: Amy Ryan
Jan Donovan :: Eve Hewson
Allen Dulles :: Peter McRobbie
Doug Forrester :: Billy Magnussen
Francis Gary Powers :: Austin Stowell
Agent Blasco :: Domenick Lombardozzi
Williams :: Michael Gaston
Wolfgang Vogel :: Sebastian Koch
Reporter :: Marko Caka
Roger Donovan :: Noah Schnapp
Judge Byers :: Dakin Matthews
Teacher :: Ashlie Atkinson
Frederic Pryor :: Will Rogers
Hoffman :: Scott Shepherd


Director :: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter :: Matt Charman
Screenwriter :: Ethan Coen
Screenwriter :: Joel Coen
Producer :: Steven Spielberg
Producer :: Marc Platt
Producer :: Kristie Krieger
Executive Producer :: Adam Somner
Executive Producer :: Daniel Lupi
Executive Producer :: Jeff Skoll
Executive Producer :: Jonathan King
Cinematographer :: Janusz Kaminski
Film Editor :: Michael Kahn
Original Music :: Thomas Newman
Production Design :: Adam Stockhausen
Supervising Art Direction :: Marco Rosser
Supervising Art Direction :: Kim Jennings
Art Director :: Scott Dougan
Art Director :: Anja Müller
Costume Designer :: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Casting :: Ellen Lewis

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.