Regardless of one’s opinions of Steven Spielberg or Tom Hanks, when the two come together to make a film there’s generally little doubt that it will be good. The topics of their collaborations have varied over the years from the war to immigration to a clever criminal. In Bridge of Spies, they add espionage to the list, though the actor thankfully is not the one sneaking around stealing government secrets.
With both countries tremendously wary of each other during the Cold War, it’s documented that the Americans and Soviets each sent spies to gather information from within their enemy countries. Both nations’ authorities dedicated efforts to their capture and in at least two instances they were successful. When Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) was apprehended in the U.S. in 1957, he never confirmed nor denied his status as an undercover agent. But he was still owed due process and the government wanted to avoid the impression of a kangaroo court, so they asked competent attorney James Donovan (Hanks) to represent Abel hoping his work on the Nuremburg trials would lend legitimacy to the proceedings; they didn’t anticipate he would take his job as defence so seriously. Predictably Abel was convicted in spite of Donovan’s efforts, though he did manage to avoid the death penalty — a decision that would prove useful after American pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is captured flying a spy plane in Soviet territory. Once again Donovan would be recruited, this time as negotiator to arrange an exchange of prisoners between the two countries.
Even though there is little action in this picture — or even a score for the opening third of the film — it still generates a fair amount of intensity and excitement. The Coen brothers’ script takes what could have been a rather boring procedural of men just talking in rooms and makes it incredibly engaging. The courtroom drama and backroom deals in a foreign country are complemented by rousing dialogue, unexpected humour and outstanding performances. The 141-minute historical drama unfolds steadily without ever feeling too long or overwrought. There’s no attempt to establish a clear timeline, instead choosing to simply transition from one significant event/meeting/discussion to the next. Though Spielberg admits some liberties were taken to enhance the story’s appeal, it is also informed by little known facts from the real-life inspirations, including Powers’ daring last moments in the air and Donovan’s experience with the locals in East Berlin.
A lot of elements need to come together to hold audiences in a state of anticipation while the actors on screen simply sit in a drafty room waiting for a phone to ring. Hanks sees Donovan as a model of a man who knew “when to fight and what to fight for.” He’s very practical in his portrayal of the fair but ambitious lawyer who resolves to do his job to the best of his ability even if the entire country is against him. Hanks’ earnestness lends itself perfectly to this character. However, Rylance often outshines his co-star when the two share the screen. They spent time rehearsing and preparing before the shoot so the rapport between the actors would appear natural. But Abel’s casual acceptance of his circumstances has a very charming effect on his character. And Rylance’s response to any inquiries about his lack of anxiety is priceless: “Would it help?”
This is undoubtedly a film heavy on the talking but with this calibre of actors performing the Coens’ script under Spielberg’s direction, the result is unsurprisingly agreeable.