Steven Spielberg’s Cold War historical drama Bridge of Spies feels like it may get lost in the 2015 spy film shuffle. It has neither the name recognition of the franchise films released this year (Mission: Impossible and Spectre), nor the comedic leanings or freshness of something like The Kingsman. This would be a shame, as Bridge of Spies proves to be a mature and nuanced investigation of loyalty and integrity. At the same time, it offers a reminder that in fighting demons, we must always make sure not to become one.
Working from a script penned by the Coen brothers and Matt Charman, Spielberg’s film is structured in two distinct but related parts, similar to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The first part focuses on the trial of a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). The audience is well-aware of his true nature, as we see him receive secret correspondence and then destroy it upon his arrest. Charged with his case is insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who accepts at the behest of his bosses in order to make it look like Abel receives a fair trial. It becomes clear that Abel is being railroaded, but Donovan at least manages to convince the sentencing judge to issue life sentences in lieu of the death penalty.
His reasoning is simple: what if a spy of ours is captured and we want to effect an exchange? Sure enough, this happens, as a U-2 Spy Plane pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the Soviets. Thus the second half of the film emerges: Donovan is charged with negotiating this exchange of prisoners in Berlin. Added to the pot is short-on-his-luck graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who is arrested in East Berlin on suspicion of being a spy. When Donovan learns of this, he insists that both Pryor and Powers be included in all exchanges using multiple gambits, power-plays, and intimidation tactics to great effect.
Hanks is well-supported by the other actors, but this is undoubtedly his show. His portrayal of Donovan exudes integrity throughout the narrative. He is alone in his defense of Abel, and also in his insistence that the low-value student Pryor is as important as the high-value pilot Powers. He is our bedrock and our lens into the world of East Berlin, and despite his fish-out-of-water status as a spy, he somehow still manages to draw powerful conclusions from scant clues and almost always manages to be the smartest man in the room.
That is surely a testament to the writing of the Coen brothers. The script is sharp, with inter-locking plot elements and an array of forceful characters. Most impressively, the film makers are not interested in providing easy answers to the audience. One of the more crucial elements of the plot involves the anxiousness around each side’s spy. They desperately want to retrieve their man before he reveals any secrets, otherwise his rescue protects nothing, and is much less valuable. For the entirety of the film, we are as blind as the Superpowers, never quite sure what the spies have revealed.
On a vast spectrum of espionage films, Bridge of Spies is closer to the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy extreme than the Mission Impossible one. It is more interested in circuitous tradecraft and psychological power-plays than large explosions or stunts. Hanks is understated and delivers a solid performance, but this role will not likely be remembered as one of his great portrayals. Still, the writing of the Coen brothers, powered by Spielberg’s direction, masterfully weaves storylines, tones, and themes together in a wholly satisfying package. It may not be the greatest spy film released this year, but it will certainly reward those who give it a chance. Slated for a February release date, it would be perfect for a cold winter’s day.