Bridge of Spies—a film with a title far more exciting than its actual subject matter. Steven Spielberg’s latest picture is not, as the misleading title would suggest, a gripping and edgy Cold War spy thriller. The movie tells the tale of the behind-the-scenes battle of wits between the USA and the Soviet Union to resolve the U-2 spy plane crisis of 1960. Both sides have hostages to trade, but are not initially willing to let their prized captives be released.
Enter James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an unflinchingly moral American lawyer who, after unsuccessfully defending Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) in an espionage trial, is called in by the US government to broker the exchange deal. He is sent out to a tension-ridden East Berlin, where he is forced to engage in a fierce locking of horns with Soviet and East German officials to find a solution to the situation.
Credit has to be given to Spielberg’s masterful visual storytelling. Bridge of Spies could have been an unbearably dull film in the hands of a lesser director. A vast majority of the runtime consists of people in rooms talking—not exactly a cinematic scenario. Seeing as Spielberg’s previous effort, Lincoln, consisted of similar content and ended up being an unapologetic tranquilizer, it is a relief to see that Bridge of Spies manages to sidestep this perilous pitfall. But considering that this movie was scripted by none other than the Coen brothers, it’s hard to not feel that the screenplay is something of a letdown.
It is a typical trope in espionage dramas to put a sense of moral ambiguity at play. We have been, in many a Cold War movie, invited to ask ourselves who the real ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ are, assuming that there are any at all. Bridge of Spies does not provide us with such thought-provoking content; instead, we have a clear-cut image of a heroic America and a villainous Russia. Look, for example, at their prisons: Rudolf Abel is detained in the States in a brightly lit and clean cell where he is allowed to paint portraits to his heart’s content. Gary Powers, the captured U-2 pilot in the Soviet Union, is kept in a grim room that is poorly lit and ankle-deep in water. This straightforward approach to the moral themes of the story deprives Bridge of Spies of an opportunity to be considerably more interesting. Even the relationship between Donovan and Abel, which could have been used to explore this, is severely undercooked.
But when Bridge of Spies is judged within the boundaries that it imposes upon itself, we are left with a reasonably effective drama. Tom Hanks is characteristically superb as Donovan, giving us a memorable American hero for whom we can happily root. Even when the screenplay veers into the territory of unsubtle moralising, Hanks still succeeds in delivering his lines effectively. He’s not given enough material to make a truly noteworthy character, but he manages to do the best he can with what he has. Mark Rylance also excels in his (relatively limited) role as Abel. Again, he is often constricted by the script, but his scenes with Hanks are the most memorable parts of the movie.
Many of Spielberg’s best and worst tendencies are on display in Bridge of Spies, not least his lifelong penchant for sentimentality. While few directors are better capable of executing this tone than Spielberg, it’s hard not to feel that this often jars with the Cold War setting of the film. The fear of nuclear annihilation—which could (and should) have been a tangible threat throughout this film—is merely breezed over in favour of more heart-warming and triumphant moments. This is, unmistakably, a Spielbergian Cold War movie.
Bridge of Spies will keep viewers satisfied for its runtime, but many will endure a sickly-sweet aftertaste in their mouths upon exiting the cinema. To one end, it represents a missed opportunity for an intelligent spy drama, but it also serves as a fine demonstration of Spielberg’s prowess as a visual and emotionally engaging storyteller. Take your pick.