Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies has what might be termed an excess of class. He directs a frankly dangerously talented cast, with astonishing performances not just from Tom Hanks but especially Mark Rylance, as well as fine support from Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons and Sebastian Koch (from The Lives of Others). Then you’ve got a fact-based screenplay by Matt Charman polished by the Coen Brothers, plus Spielberg’s usual fantastic heads of department, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminiski and editor Michael Kahn. Only composer John Williams is absent, for the first time since The Color Purple, with Thomas Newman ably replacing him on scoring duties.
Set at the height of the Cold War in the late 1950s/early 1960s, the film concerns insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) who is recruited to defend captured Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance). His rigorous defence of Abel leads to controversy, hostility and even violent attacks on his family in an era where nuclear attack from the Russians was a very real fear. Subsequently, when a US U2 spy plane pilot is shot down and captured, the Soviets reach out to the US, hoping to unofficially arrange an exchange in East Berlin, with Donovan negotiating the deal.
One has come to expect brilliance from Spielberg, and whilst his direction here is perhaps less flamboyant than usual, the subtle approach suits the subject matter. Even though much of the film is people talking in rooms, waiting near phones, or walking amid icy Berlin streets, the drama remains gripping throughout.
From a historical perspective, Bridge of Spies offers an important reminder of a fascinating and frightening episode in recent history. The film also has an admirably fierce morality – not a patriotic, flag-waving morality, but a quiet, seasoned, intelligent, almost naïve decency that is all but irresistible. It dares to suggest that yes, although war is hell (even when it’s a cold one), certain standards must apply in the treatment of enemy spies, regardless of how much one might disagree with their ideology.
Bridge of Spies won’t be for everyone. Those expecting Bourne or Bond might find it too slow and cerebral (it really isn’t a thriller), and indeed it has apparently underperformed at the box office. But I found it an immensely satisfying piece of work, and yet another fine addition to Spielberg’s embarrassment of riches CV. I fully expect Oscar nominations to follow.