Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Bridge of Spies begins quiet. No music, no dialogue, just some distant street noises. A man sits, painting, working on a somber self-portrait. A phone rings, he continues painting, working on the details of the lines on his face. When the phone rings again, he sighs, placing his brush carefully down, grabbing a rag and wipes his hands. He picks up the phone and listens, never talking. The man is followed as he leaves his shop and takes a subway across town. Spielberg, being the genius that he has proven himself over and over and over again to be, slowly builds the tension as the crowds grow thicker, as the trains enter and leave and enter the station. And still, no music, no dialogue.
This is our introduction to Rudolf Ivanovich Abel and it works beautifully. Just a painter making his way through the streets of late 1950s Brooklyn. A quiet man, sitting in a park and painting the cityscape. Nothing is suspect about him, nothing is conveyed or telegraphed or overtly stated. Except for the guys in suits following him. And until he picks up his dead drop, we have no clue that Rudolf Abel is anything but a tired painter.
Bridge of Spies is among Spielberg’s most eloquent and beautiful and surprising films. After directing 26 feature films that have run the entire spectrum from masterpieces to mistakes to just-plain-bad and back again, that have covered nearly every genre from science fiction to historical pieces to broad comedy to thrillers to whatever Hook is, that Steven Spielberg can still surprise his audience says a lot about the man and his ambitions and his ever-evolving artistry, I think. I mean, he doesn’t need to work hard anymore. His legacy is secure, his work will entertain countless future generations. Hell, some of his films will probably be studied long after the rest of us have shuffled off this mortal coil.
This film looks amazing, it really is beautiful. From the shadows to the neon lights reflecting in puddles and off of windows, from the falling snow to the pouring rain, the texture of the light coming through prison windows, the lines on the actors’ faces, the well-worn clothing, the lived-in feel of every room, the war rubble of Berlin, nearly every frame of Bridge of Spies stands head and shoulders with any of Spielberg’s work. The director’s confidence and experience and film knowledge shines and shows a new enthusiasm for film-making. I’ll say it again and again and again, I will shout it from rooftops - Bridge of Spies is a truly beautiful film.
And it is thrilling, a cold-war story some history geeks and students of the cold war might be familiar with. At the very least, the name Francis Gary Powers is familiar to us folks of a certain age. Bridge of Spies is the story of Rudolf Abel’s lawyer Jim Donovan and how he became the spy’s lawyer and how he became involved in the exchange of the U-2 pilot for the Soviet spy. The film moves, it has a pace that only a handful of directors can achieve, brisk but still takes the time to tell the story and hints at stories not told.
James Donovan is one of those guys from history whose story is just bizarre enough to not be believable. He worked for the O.S.S., which in time became the C.I.A., was an assistant prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, and eventually became an insurance lawyer. His sense of justice and belief in the American constitution and how it should protect not only Americans but anyone charged with a crime on American soil, his sense of duty, his belief in the decency of people probably served him well when defending Abel and later negotiated his exchange. And could come off as kind of ludicrous on-screen if played by anyone other than Tom Hanks. But Tom Hanks has become our collective cultural dad and doesn’t seem to have an ounce of cynicism or irony in his soul. And his performance in Bridge of Spies is a triumph.
Of course it is. Because he’s Tom frickin Hanks. He makes it seem so easy, he never seems to be acting. As the lawyer with a cold who just wants to go home and sleep in his own bed, travelling between the two Berlins, negotiating with the East Germans, the Soviets, and the C.I.A., running into street gangs and cops and border guards, all the while knowing that if he doesn’t come through it could very well mean the end of three people’s lives, Tom frickin Hanks could just own this film.
But he gives his fellow performers plenty of room to breathe, to flesh out their portrayals. And they are all amazing, every performance feels right, feels real. There’s Amy Ryan as his wife, suffering because her husband seems to value his principles above his family. Alan Alda as Donovan’s law firm partner, proud of Donovan for representing Abel, alarmed and disappointed when Donovan tries to do a solid job of it. I could go on and on and on, listing each actor in turn and singing their praises in my tone-deaf croak. Instead, go to the Bridge of Spies IMDB page, look at the full cast list and trust me, each and every one of them bring their A-game to this film.
But I would be a complete jackass if I didn’t mention one name in particular. Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel turns in a performance here that will be nominated for all of the awards. He brings a calm centre, an internal strength, a believability as an honourable soldier to a character that, by any judgement of history, was a villain. A spy found with the tools of his trade, illegally in enemy territory in a time of unprecedented paranoia, a spy who, once caught, refused to work with the Americans and refused to crack. The kind of guy who, after the F.B.I. have kicked in his hotel room door and have rushed in with guns drawn, not only doesn’t sweat, but greets them pleasantly with “Oh, visitors.” Rylance’s Abel is charming and kind of sweet and funny.
This year is becoming the year of the supporting character actor, with Joel Edgerton in Black Mass, Nicholas Hoult in Fury Road, and Mark Ryalnce in Bridge of Spies. The race for Best Supporting Actor is a three-way race and in my oh-so-humble opinion, if award season was now, the award would be a three-way tie. Someone would have to do something pretty damn incredible to knock any of these three off of the pedestal I’ve built for them.
Working with a script co-written by the Coen brothers, Bridge of Spies is suspenseful and funny and smart and intriguing and with character moments that could only come from the minds behind Fargo and The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man and No Country for Old Men. Maybe that’s why this movie is so damn good. Maybe working with the Coens has given Spielberg a fresh outlook, a fresh take on film-making. Bridge of Spies is not just Spielberg’s best film in over a decade, I’m gonna argue with anyone that wants to argue that it stands among his top tier films. If you divide your Spielberg collection by quality, prepare a spot on the top shelf for Bridge of Spies. It is that good.
If you feel so inclined, share your five favourite Spielberg films. I’d love to see your list. It doesn’t have to be in any particular order, just your top five. My top five are – Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List, Catch Me if You Can, and Minority Report. Bridge of Spies definitely breaks the top ten, just not the top five.
So, yeah. Share your top five. And then go see Bridge of Spies.