Bridge of Spies is everything that you would expect from a Steven Spielberg film: it is brilliantly directed, looks immaculate, and is fabulously acted. It is a subtle and engaging Cold War thriller in a similar sense to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: this is not behind the enemy lines, nail-biting action; but a progressive drama which gradually unfolds, with a strong moral message.
Beginning with a brilliant opening sequence, Mark Rylance is superb as the understated Russian spy Rudolph Abel: Rylance is a lesson in the art of less-is-more and builds upon his performance in Wolf Hall. Abel’s lack of dialogue and Rylance’s control over the character means that both Donovan (Tom Hanks) and the audience are hanging on his every word. He is captivating: and his blunt, to-the-point humour is much more akin to that of Finland’s Kimi Raikonnen than anything distinctly Russian. It is a testament to the screen-writers, Spielberg and Rylance just how much flavour this character gives.
The duality between Hanks and Rylance is fascinating, and it should come as no surprise that their scenes together are the strongest in the film. Hanks is everybody’s favourite everyday man and he once again excels in the role: only this time he has a moral dedication and single-mindedness that we have yet to see. Donovan carries the moral heart of the story, that everyone is equal: he defends Abel despite being publicly disgraced and after threats to his family; eventually his unbending principles will have profound repercussions. It is impressive just how effortlessly Hanks seems to connect with Donovan and it is a seamless performance throughout: whether he is making the case before the Supreme Court or to his family, Hanks’ tone in his deliverance is spot on.
Because of this chemistry on-screen it is only natural to crave more once Donovan flies off to East Germany and Abel is no longer present; but Abel’s absence should still not be felt quite so much. At this point the film begins to drag ever so slightly: which is ironic as it should be where the tension is ramped up. Perhaps it is because the film is a bit too long for the story it is telling, but while Donovan’s negotiations are intriguing to watch, as he feels out both his Soviet and East German counterparts, there is a lack of urgency and a sense that things are still running a bit too smoothly. It’s difficult to pull off this kind of tension when we already know what is going to happen: but the brilliance of Wolf Hall managed to completely suck us in to the point we almost didn’t know what Cromwell was going to do just before Anne Boleyn was executed. It’s difficult but by no means impossible to pull this off, especially when you’re Stephen Spielberg. Instead we get scenes where Donovan complains of his cold and tells us he just wants to go home. Although this is actually what happened and is quite endearing, it isn’t sufficient to keep this part of the film on a par with the first.
Bridge of Spies is also a bit too well produced: a bit too sharp. Tinker Tailor is remarkable as it really takes you back into the grimness of 70s London, whereas Bridge of Spies still feels like you’re watching a film. Scenes early on are Spielberg at his finest, and even during a Cold War thriller he stops to have some fun with an umbrella chase scene. These touches give the film its character, but later on it feels a bit too polished, a bit too safe.
My main problem with Bridge of Spies though is that it is too clear cut. Abel is fantastically understated, but you never get the impression he’s been put under any real pressure to give up his information: I don’t need to see people being bloodied to a pulp, but it rings a bit false just how much better he is treated than his American counterpart in Russia. At times it felt like Spielberg was inserting his own message and modern day values into the film, instead of taking a step back and allowing the events to speak for themselves. The black and white nature of the American public against Donovan when he defends Abel also jars slightly: sure fanatics would have acted this way, but there were plenty of people at the time who shared Donovan’s dedication to American principles: to remove this offers no benefit to the story and makes the film seem that little more cartoonish.
There are however, more than enough reasons to go and see Bridge of Spies: particularly the scenes with Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. It’s an effortlessly enjoyable film to watch and holds your attention throughout. But if I had to choose a Cold War thriller I would still opt for Tinker Tailor. Bridge of Spies is a very good Stephen Spielberg film, a solid eight out of ten, but due to its inconsistencies it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of offerings such as Jaws and Catch Me If You Can.
I would have preferred murkier waters: Bridge of Spies is a bit too clear to be truly cold.