Steven Spielberg’s films, with their interest in uplifting character arcs and nostalgic portraits of the past, are often criticised as overly sentimental and nostalgic. Bridge of Spies does little to dissuade this criticism. Its Cold War political narrative is equally as interested in the story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a fundamentally good person doing his best in an unjust system, as it is in intrigue and espionage. However, it is also a handsomely crafted and confidently directed work, with strong central performances, a close attention to period detail, and an unaffected style.
Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a Soviet spy, caught on American soil. When he is put to trial he is met with a jingoistic jury, fuelled by Cold War hysteria, who want him to receive the death penalty. James D. Donovan is hired to defend Abel, giving him a fair trial in an act designed to emphasize the legitimacy of America’s legal system in contrast to the Soviets’. Donovan bonds with the polite and soft-spoken spy, but soon finds that the legal system is far from impartial in dealing with him. Despite these courtroom proceedings, Spielberg seems as focused on the period aesthetic of the film as he in in telling a courtroom drama. The first ten minutes or so are a mostly wordless game of cat and mouse between Abel and FBI detectives, in which the streets of 1950s Washington D.C. are showcased with considerable interest. Indeed, throughout the film the camera seems to linger on the period cars and the clothing of the characters, taking in the look and feel of the age. This shifts in the latter half of the film, which takes place in East Germany, as which the film becomes monochrome greys and blacks.
The script, which was written by playwright Matt Charman, along with the Coen Brothers, is somewhat split between the courtroom drama of the first half, and a suspenseful spy thriller in the second. These two elements both work, largely because of the emphasis put on the film’s central performances. The tone of the acting is subdued and quiet, matching a script which is driven by backroom discussions more than inspirational speeches. In particular Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance have a chemistry that lends credence to their friendship, which is mostly developed in softly spoken conversations as the two begin to relate to one another. The film’s effectiveness is really based upon this relationship, and Rylance’s reserved and stony-faced performance contrasts well with Hank’s everyman persona. Overall, the narrative of the film achieves a kind of charming sincerity, and the effectiveness of this tone is dependent on whether the viewer buys into this central relationship.
Unfortunately, certain production aspects harm the film as whole. A subplot involving a US Spy Jet is heavily saturated in unconvincing green-screen and CG effects, a decision likely made for budgetary reasons, but which seems even more glaring in a film otherwise so focused on the authenticity of costumes and set-design. Furthermore, the score by Thomas Newman leaves something to be desired. While Spielberg’s use of John Williams’ stirring chords in dramatic scenes has been criticised as sentimental, Newman’s score makes clear how well-suited Spielberg and Williams’ styles have always been. Newman is very much in the mode of aping Williams, understandable considering Spielberg has only directed one other film without a Williams score, but the result is rarely as effective. Overall however, Bridge of Spies is a handsomely directed and well-crafted film, very much in the mode of what we have come to be expected of Spielberg’s period dramas.