Since it was first announced a film I’ve had extremely high hopes for has been Bridge of Spies. I’m a sucker for any iukind of Cold War political thriller and the prospect of one centred partly on the U2 Spy Plane Scandal directed by Steven Spielberg and co-written by the Coen Brothers felt right up my alley and I have to say the film lived up to my expectations and it is one of the best films of the year.
The plot concerns James Donovan, an insurance lawyer hired to represent Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy arrested in the US, because of the skills Donovan presented during the Nuremberg Trials. Whilst he is expected to give an adequate defense just to show that Abel is getting a fair trial, Donovan actually gives a proper defense, calling for Abel’s acquittal. Whilst he isn’t successful, he avoids getting Abel executed, arguing that he is more valuable alive as a bargaining chip. This proves to be the case during the U2 Spy Plane Scandal, when Francis Gary Powers is shot down and captured by the Soviets, with Donovan sent in to negotiate his release. A spanner is thrown into the works though with the arrest of Frederick Prior, an American student doing post-grad studies in Berlin, with Donovan working to get both Powers and Prior released. One of the main reasons why the film works so well is because of its amazing script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, creating a great mix of humour and tension throughout the film, the dialogue being particularly strong, in particular during the negotiations and the scenes between Donovan and Abel. The film also does a good job with the comparison between insurance law and negotiation. When we first see Donovan, he’s making the argument that a driver who hit 5 motorbikes was involved in only 1 accident, not five and this comes through in the negotiations and his belief that trading Abel for Powers and Prior is one deal, not 2. The film also does a good job creating a tense atmosphere in both the US and East Berlin at the time. We see Donovan’s children in school watching the Duck and Cover film and them preparing in case of nuclear war. We also see how Donovan’s actions have alienated him from his neighbours, including people insulting him and shooting at his house for his role defending Abel, along with the annoyance of his superiors that he is actually giving Abel a serious defense and his trying to get Prior released alongside Powers. This brings in an overall feel of the similarity between the US and USSR, the attitudes towards the arrests of Abel and Powers being similar, along with the overall political structure in play, a great bit coming through the exploration of the relationship between the USSR and the GDR. This also adds to Donovan being out of his depth and the mood in East Berlin, especially since it was during the building of the Berlin Wall, adds to the overall tension of the film.
The acting meanwhile is incredible. In smaller roles Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Jesse Plemons, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers and Dakin Matthews are great but this film works best as a two handed between Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Hanks brings this everyman quality to Donovan, showing the intelligence of the character, mainly with his skills as a lawyer, along with his morality. The belief that everyone should get a fair trial comes across brilliantly and his conviction in this belief is brilliantly presented. He also shows the similarity between insurance law and negotiation well, along with the out-of-his-depth nature of Donovan in Berlin, along with a great skill at playing the system to his advantage. Hanks also does a good job showing the things that limit Donovan, in particularly a terrible cold he had during the negotiations and his unfamiliarity with the environment, at one point having to give his coat to a gang in order to get directions to the building where the negotiations are being held. Mark Rylance meanwhile is incredible as Abel. There’s this air of mystery around the character throughout the film, never knowing his true heritage, even down to the accent used, you don’t expect a Scottish accent to come out of someone accused is being a Soviet spy. There’s also this calm intensity to the character in the scenes without dialogue, showing his intelligence throughout, letting you know how he was able to escape detection for so long. This calm adds to a resigned nature for the character in a lot of scenes, expecting the worst for what’s going to happen to him, the constant asking of Would It Help underpinning thus. The scenes that Hanks and Rykance share are the best in the film, the opposite nature of their styles actually doing a great job to reflect the similarity between the U.S. and USSR.
On a technical level the film is excellent, as is to be expected from Spielberg. The direction adds a lot of tension throughout the film, mainly in the corners around and the presentation of East Berlin, along with brilliantly showing the parallels and contrasting nature of the US and USSR. The crash of the U2 Spy Plane meanwhile is a brilliantly handled scene. Putting us right in the shows of Powers, the feeling of fear being present throughout. The production design meanwhile is excellent, capturing the contrasting nature of Brooklyn and Eaat Berlin to further show Donovan as out of his depth whilst the music by Thomas Newman. The first time in a long while John Williams hasn’t done the score for a Spielberg film, is pitched at the right level throughout the film, never getting too over the top, adding to the atmosphere of the film.
Overall, Bridge of Spies is an excellent film, a brilliantly handled political thriller creating a great look at the way ordinary people were treated untie Cold War and the political difficulties in any negotiation. Spielberg’s direction is top notch, along with the script and excellent performances from Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. This film was designed to be right up my alley and it didn’t disappoint.
My Rating: 5/5