Bridge of Spies


Whenever a Steven Spielberg movie lands, you know two things, it will be beautifully made and it will get lost in sentimentality with a sweeping score to tell exactly how you should feel.  A film by Steven Spielberg is cinematic manipulation done to perfection.  Spielberg is the master of this and you always get your money’s worth, despite the quality of the overall product.  Now, we have Spielberg turning his hand to the cold war thriller and finally gets his hands on Mark Rylance, a move which works a dream.

Rylance and Hanks as Abel and Donovan

Rylance and Hanks as Abel and Donovan

Bridge of Spies starts with the capture of Russian spy Rudolf Abel, wonderfully underplayed by Rylance, by the FBI.  The opening scene of the FBI closing in on Abel, returning from a dead-drop next to the Hudson River, is impressive but lacks conviction.  Spielberg and regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński seem unable to leave the camera on Rylance, they dance between their foe and their “Heroes”, the FBI agents trailing him.  Luckily, Rylance saves the day, his wonderfully understated performance throughout draws you in and captivates.  His performance is equally countered by the real focus of the film, Tom Hanks‘ Jim Donovan.  Hanks plays an insurance lawyer, Donovan, brought in by the US Government to defend Abel against the charge of spying.  As the two meet and the case begins, Abel refuses to worry, knowing the outcome is out of his hands, “Will it help?” he asks, and Donovan starts to see the true side of the 1950’s America.  The “Red Menace” means the rules that he holds so dear, enshrined in the Constitution itself, are rather flexible during the hight of the Cold War.  Hanks is our generation’s everyman, like Jimmy Stewart before him, and while he is basically playing “Tom Hanks” these days, the heart and passion he brings means we commit to him and trust whatever he does.  Hanks’ Donovan takes the fight all the way to the Supreme Court, seeing the real America, the hatred of his upholding the very rights Americans hold so dear, for a “god-damned commie”.  Hanks is superb, sparking off Rylance’s sombre, sober portrayal.  Inter cut with these goings on is a new batch of CIA pilots being read into the U-2 programme.  Amongst the pilots we have one Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who’s fate makes up the second half of the film.  As Donovan fight’s for his Commie, Powers is shipped out to Pakistan to begin preparations for his overflight missions of the Soviet Union.  We, through the breaks from Donovan, are taught the very basics of the U-2 program, the minimum about that one of the finest creations of Lockheed’s Skunkworks and Powers setting off to Russia to take some snaps.  The mission, and this isn’t spoiler as it is in the trailer, doesn’t go to plan and Powers is shot down in a brilliant scene that shows Spielberg at his best.  Donovan is brought in to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers, before the Russians break Powers.  Thrown into the mix is a love-stuck student who gets stuck the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and you have the second, “Thriller” part of the film.

This is where the film struggles.  Spielberg and Kamiński have all the toys at their disposal, but they are coming up against the greats, they are in Le Carre and Deighton territory and while we get an appearance of wonderful Sebastian Koch (of the truly incredible Stasi drama, The Lives of Others and Paul Verhoeven‘s filpside to his original Dutch Resistance film Soldier of Orange, Black Book with the equally brilliant Carice Van Houten.  I cannot recommend all three films highly enough.), the film is in that shadow of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold or Funeral in Berlin, we even get a Berlin Wall scene straight out of the final chapter of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but seen from a passing train and no George Smiley at his most ruthless.  Le Carre and, in movie terms, Richard Burton, did it better.  But, this is a spy fiction geek issue and one that most won’t care about.  The mission that Donovan is on is, again, different to the US Government and the CIA, Hanks playing it with a streaming cold in the frozen, still shattered, Berlin, both East and West.  Donovan is trying to get everyone home, to the America he dreams still exists and his charge to a Russia he knows nothing about.

Throughout, the film is beautiful and the score is sweeping to match but Spielberg cannot help himself by the end, returning Donovan from a frozen Berlin to a sunny balmy Brooklyn, showing the warmth and brightness of the American ideal is poured on a tad much, as is the kids jumping over fences.  He never seems to end on a realistic note any more, he has to go one step further and that is a shame which always takes the shine off his films for me lately.  I grew up with JawsRaiders and Empire of the Sun, all kept faith till the end.  More recently, Spielberg, post Saving Private Ryan, has leant towards over sentiment and a rounded, tied off ending.  Lincoln is the best example of this malaise, the film should end as Lincoln walks down the steps of the White House and not in the hammy switch-a-roo that it does.  Spielberg is better than this, we know, we own the videos, DVD’s and Blu Ray’s.  Next for Spielberg is The BFG with Rylance voicing The Big Friendly Giant  and then, hopefully, his adaptation of Ernest Cline’s brilliantly fun Ready Player One.  After that, I would love to see Spielberg take half the budget he’s used too and craft something more real than he has been of these past few years.  I miss him leaving us with the prize in the hands of “Top Men”.  

Bridge of Spies, all my witterings aside, is well worth your ticket fee and time.  While wonderfully crafted, it is held up more by Hanks and Rylance than by plot but this aside, let yourself be swept along by the score and you’ll have no regrets.

Bridge of Spies is out now.

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