Film review: Bridge of Spies

David Gritten / 19 November 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten is absorbed by the Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, starring Tom Hanks as a quiet American hero.

Steven Spielberg’s new film Bridge of Spies (which opens in Britain next week) strikes me as a film of old-fashioned virtues; and if that sounds like a back-handed compliment, it’s not remotely my intention. 

Its strengths – the clarity of its story-telling, a host of rich, well-drawn characters, allowing time and space for moral dilemmas to be aired, and a suspenseful plot – all belong firmly in the tradition of first-rate film-making.

Tom Hanks takes the lead as James Donovan, an experienced New York insurance lawyer; he is handed the unenviable task of representing Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who is living in America and has been apprehended by the FBI. It’s 1957, Cold War paranoia looms large, and Abel fits the bill as the Red Menace: Public Enemy number one. 

The mere fact of Donovan defending the Commie is enough to make him widely unpopular with the American public.

The film starts so smoothly and effortlessly, it’s the equivalent of settling down behind the wheel of a luxury high-performance car. We see Abel in his apartment, engrossed in a self-portrait in oils. Then he hits the streets and it becomes clear the FBI are tailing him; this fluent, beautifully orchestrated sequence climaxes in his arrest.

A universe of meaning 

It should be added that Abel – a man of few words, and not many more facial expressions – is played with sorrowful stillness by that great actor Mark Rylance, in his biggest feature film role to date. 

Fans of his commanding work as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC series Wolf Hall from earlier this year know full well that Rylance can convey an awful lot by doing very little. So it is here – his Abel can suggest universes of meaning with a twitch of an eyebrow.

What drives this story along is a murky piece of international diplomacy. Donovan comes to realise that Abel is an honourable man, and a patriot – though an enemy of America. He argues that Abel might be useful fodder in any future spy swap, if an American agent were to fall into Soviet hands.

Shot down over Russian airspace 

Remarkably, this actually happened. A US pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is shot down in his high-altitude U-2 spy plane over Russian airspace; the hapless Powers, who was supposed to bite on a cyanide capsule in such circumstances, failed on that count too.

The stage, then, is set for Donovan to engineer a swap between Abel and Powers, who would pass each other in opposite directions on a bridge in East Berlin. It isn’t as easy as it sounds, and Donovan must travel to Germany and doggedly engineer the scheme’s success. 

It’s intriguing, in a Hollywood film, that Abel comes across as a finer character than the man with whom he is being exchanged. Powers has a minor role, and the film has little use for him except as a plot device; what we see of him suggests he is surly and doltish.

Threat of death penalty 

Abel, in contrast, has a stoic dignity and a sense of decency. When he and Donovan first meet, the Russian has the threat of a death penalty hanging over him. Donovan observes that he doesn’t seem worried, to which he memorably replies: “Would it help?”

It’s hard to think of another leading actor who could plausibly play Donovan. Hanks has the ability to set his jaw firmly and take the tough option, but to do so without any fuss or noise. He’s an Everyman hero, determined to uphold justice and secure a morally acceptable result, without resorting to grandstanding speeches. 

Had this film been made at the time of the events it depicts, one imagines Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda or James Stewart would have been perfect casting.

It’s a classy piece of work, and Spielberg’s deft touch is apparent from the outset; one feels in good hands. Remarkably, its script is by a debutant screenwriter, Englishman Matt Charman, who is 36 years old. 

Spielberg turned Charman’s early drafts over to the vastly experienced Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan, who reportedly adapted some of Hanks’s dialogue – but then he gave it back to Charman to complete. 

If that title strikes you as a groaning pun, try to get over it, for the film itself offers treat after treat.  It is hugely engaging, tremendously enjoyable – and if Spielberg, Hanks and Rylance all found themselves in the running for Oscars, you wouldn’t hear a complaint from me.

Bridge of Spies opens November 27.

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