Tom Hanks. Steven Spielberg. The Coen Brothers. A Cold War thriller about a little known segment of US/Soviet history. What more could audiences want from a movie? For my part – not much.
Bridge of Spies has the feel of a movie classic from start to finish. Beautiful to look at, superbly written, wonderfully acted, the movie immediately struck me as great. It is elegiac and deep, full of moral quandaries and philosophical rabbit holes. It is a story of a world that is not so far in the past that its themes don’t strongly resonate today.
Telling the story of an unlikely prisoner exchange between the US and the Soviet Union, Bridge of Spies plays out like a taut spy thriller, primarily because – sadly – I didn’t actually know the outcome of the story. At the “height of the Cold War,” the US has detained and convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel while the USSR has shot Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane out of the sky and has likewise detained and convicted the US air man. Somehow finding himself in Berlin trying to arrange the exchange of these two prisoners (and perhaps a third) is Tom Hanks’ Jim Donovan. I was not sure if the exchange would work, if the characters in question would find their ways back to their home countries and how all of the various pieces of the narrative could come together on the title bridge. That’s a fun place for a movie goer to be and I like to be kept guessing.
Few are better at engaging an audience than Steven Spielberg. His direction here is, as it normally is, impeccable. He knows how to handle big moments, to be sure, but he also shows his audience in this movie that he can spellbind us with the small ones as well. Spielberg gets more out of quiet moments in this movie – a character painting, a shot through a lens of someone’s glasses, a calm bicycle ride – than he does out of the loud ones and those are the moments that have really stuck with me. It’s not that the scene of Powers’ plane going down isn’t well handled or that the moment of Abel’s capture isn’t riveting, it’s just that the power of Bridge of Spies is not discovered in the bombastic moments; it’s found in the smaller ones.
There is a problem with Tom Hanks and I would guess it must frustrate him if he cares about accolades for his work. He’s simply become so good at conveying each-and-every character he plays that the audience has come to expect brilliance from him. In Bridge of Spies, brilliance is exactly what the audience gets. Hanks is accomplished and sympathetic as Jim Donovan, a lawyer who barely knows why he’s been thrown into the center of, first, defending Abel as a spy and then attempting to arrange the man’s passage home. By turns confident and questioning, Hanks also makes his Donovan just a little dangerous. When he’s confronted by forces that ought to be beyond his control, Hanks’ Donovan never shows weakness or indecision. What he flashes is an edge that suggests “I’ve been in bigger and badder situations than this.” It’s an edge that serves the character well and takes him from being simply a do-gooder to a three dimensional hero who has concerns, questions and conviction. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Hanks in the role.
The real revelation here, however, is Mark Rylance as Rudolf Able. In a role built around silence and acceptance, Rylance is absolutely outstanding as the Russian who stands by his spying as a patriotic act, one that surely Donovan can understand. Unflappable under any circumstance, Rylance’s Able gave me a mantra I’ve tried to make my own since seeing the film. When it is pointed out to him at various times in the movie that the direst of circumstances don’t seem to make him worry he calmly asks: “would it help?” to worry. He’s placid in the face of a hurricane around him. Calm even as wheels turning around him may lead him to death.
Rylance and Hanks have real chemistry and their off-kilter and unlikely friendship is at the heart of the film. It’s what makes the film work. Both of the actors are faced at difference points with what I thought was the only weakness in the movie: delivering monologues that were a bit too trite and, in the hands of lesser actors, would have ground proceedings to a halt. Neither is tripped up by these moments and, in fact, make them work.
It’s surprising to me that more people didn’t embrace this movie. Maybe if it makes news in award season it will find a new release and a new audience.
It deserves to.
BRIDGE OF SPIES receives FOUR AND A HALF NEWSPAPER HEADLINES out of a possible five.