Governments and citizens have always been willing to overlook due process in times of panic or paranoia. In the new espionage epic, Bridge of Spies, director Steven Spielberg expertly ties modern-day security panic with Cold War paranoia. It’s Spielberg at his wonky best, aided by some first-rate cinematography and a predictably wonderful performance from Tom Hanks. Bridge of Spies may be awkward and clunky at times, but it still paints a vivid picture of the dangerous intersection between secrecy and security.
Russian nationalist Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is clearly up to something. An exhilarating opening sequence tracks this mild-mannered painter as he makes his way around 1957 Brooklyn, New York. After evading CIA agents in a crowded subway, Abel is finally arrested in his modest studio, but not before he meticulously inspects a paper he just extracted from a hollow nickel; not exactly currency afforded to the general public. Spielberg still appreciates these methodical cloak-and-dagger escapades that a less-disciplined filmmaker would abandon in favor of gun play.
The United States government, eager to show the world they can railroad a spy legally, enlists the help of insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) to defend Abel in a kangaroo court. Donovan knows exactly what the score is; “Everyone will hate me, but at least I will lose.” After a speedy guilty verdict, Donovan argues convincingly to spare the life of his client, who might provide useful leverage in future prisoner exchanges. Donovan’s prescience is “rewarded” when he’s asked to negotiate a trade that would hand Abel to the Russians in exchange for a captured American pilot, Lieutenant Powers (Austin Stowell). Matters are further complicated when an American student named Pryor (Will Rogers) is detained by an upstart German Democratic Republic that’s eager for a seat at the international table.
The first half of Bridge of Spies sizzles with political intrigue. Much like 2012’s Lincoln, Spielberg delights in the backroom wrangling that decides the course of men, nations, and values. The scenes between Donovan and Abel are particularly effective, with the lawyer coming to respect the quiet nobility of his obviously-guilty client. Hanks and the brilliant Rylance do some of the finest acting of the young Oscar season. Both convey the disillusionment of two idealists pitted against a world that’s more concerned with nuclear annihilation than human rights. Hanks uses humor and weather-beaten charm to keep Donovan from ever appearing saintly. He and Spielberg work together with an effortless fluidity; Spielberg winding through the impenetrable corridors of corruption and Hanks making the terrain feel almost negotiable.
Furthering the cause are some great period set designs and the amazing cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. The graininess of the frame lends authenticity, and Kaminski never neglects the background in favor of the foreground action. In one bravura scene, Donovan watches curiously as bicycle couriers peddle down crowded hallways at GDR headquarters. To further the otherworldly absurdity of the scene, Kaminski overpowers the background with blinding white light, as if the cyclists are disappearing into the ether. In a world filled with spies and double-agents, Spielberg and Kaminski keep their pictures suitably hazy.
Where Bridges of Spies struggles, however, is the script penned by Matt Charman (and polished by Joel and Ethan Coen). Charman does his best to manage a story of mammoth historical proportions, but there are multiple movies residing within this script and they don’t always play nice with each other. Whereas the storyline with Donovan and Abel pops, the accompanying stories for Powers and Pryor fizzle. It’s admirable that Charman and Spielberg try to present these secondary characters in three dimensional terms, but there’s no way to weave them organically into the larger narrative. Though some of the instructional scenes of Powers’ indoctrination into the U2 spy program are mildly interesting, there’s really nothing new to see here. Each cutaway grinds things to a jarring halt, which makes the second half of the movie feel sluggish and clunky.
Of course, no Spielberg film would be complete without some questionable flourishes during the story’s resolution. To his credit, Spielberg steers clear of any Donovan family melodrama. It’s a shame to sacrifice a gifted actress like Amy Ryan (who plays Donovan’s beleaguered wife), but it’s better than the hysterics normally reserved for Spielberg heroines. Of course, he can’t resist adding a dollop of condescending syrup to the final act, but, relatively speaking, Spielberg leaves the sledgehammer at home and lets his story do the talking.
Bridge of Spies takes audiences back to the origins of our modern-day surveillance apparatus. The same moral quandaries regarding law and security are still being pondered long after the Cold War’s thaw. More than instructing and provoking, however, Steven Spielberg is here to entertain, and he succeeds admirably. His gifted cast and crew turn a dry espionage yarn into a thrilling tale packed full of twists, turns, and humor. Tom Hanks is so good that we’ve come to take his excellence for granted, though it’s unlikely the Academy will make the same mistake come January. This is a solid, smart entry into the spy game that will provide a nice counterpoint to the Bond extravaganza waiting just around the corner.