Marking the fourth film collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies stands as one of Spielberg’s finest history-centric features in his lengthiest oeuvre to date, wielding his indomitable mastery of cinematic technique and earnest sentimentality to create a gripping, consummate Cold War thriller.
Based partially on the true story of insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (played by Hanks in the film) and real events, Bridge of Spies is modest in its scope yet expansive in its grander perspective regarding, in Spielberg’s own views, the truest kind of American hero. The true action of the film derives not from large-scale set-pieces but its characters and dialogue, particularly with Donovan, whose selfless, herculean task to defend accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel provides the main dramatic pull of the narrative and the audience’s heart-strings. Hanks and Mark Rylance are simply remarkable on-screen together as well as individually, especially the latter’s shortly performed if layered, gentle characterisation that humanises and places into reality the exaggerated Soviet villains often found in films of this type, and which earned him a well-deserved win for Best Supporting Actor. Along with the rest of the cast, they help to carry the heavy lifting of the story and realise the film’s messages wonderfully. Despite not being scored by collaborator John Williams, Thomas Newman’s arresting, warming score is distinctive in its own right, boosting both the apprehension and the stirring optimism at the centre of the film.
Complimenting the performances, naturally, is the sharp screenplay written by Matt Chairman and the expected powerhouse duo the Coen Brothers, smoothly implementing their specially-made brand of laconic dialogue and fully-realised characters whilst retaining the bright, hopeful trademark stamp of Spielberg. In conjunction with Spielberg’s usual cinematic precision and purity, generating a picture that manages to evoke cinema in every aspect of its beautiful cinematography and production design, with nary a shot out of line, Bridge of Spies faithfully captures the pervading, looming tension of the Cold War which governs its entire runtime. It uses this as the locus to explore the critical values Spielberg has time and again displayed as quintessential to America and its individuals, all with very careful pace and a genuine sense of real pride, without veering into total ignorance of the flaws.
The resulting depiction of the political landscape is startlingly relevant to now, and it is this where said values of true justice and morality are highlighted as what should be essential facets of American citizens, whether ordinary or with those high in power, as in 2012’s Lincoln. Whether it be the irony of the American government’s cut-throat expectation of complacency or the constant threat of nuclear war with the USSR at every step, the tale of Donovan’s eventual success and perseverance, his integrity intact, has Spielberg paint a revised ideal of the typical American ’everyman’ in his own vision, going beyond what may have initially seemed to be unabashed patriotism. That Spielberg is able to use his expertise of cinema to easily invest and engross mainstream audiences in a character armed with nothing but words and a suitcase on an equal, if not higher, level to that of any action film and blockbuster clearly showcases the enduring brilliance of his work and his legendary filmmaker status.
As well as revitalising elements of the genres it belongs to, Bridge of Spies works simultaneously as an exemplary work of them too, being led by virtuoso filmmaking, terrific performances, wonderful production design and clever scripting that is as rewarding with its lofty, hopeful themes each time as it is the first time. Dime a dozen films like Bridge of Spies serve as a good reminder of how far Spielberg has come, and what a privilege it is to still have him around, too.
Watch the trailer for Bridge of Spies below: