Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s actor-director collaborations have produced several critically acclaimed films (Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can), and their latest, Bridge of Spies, is another example of masterful chemistry between the two.
The film is based on an extraordinary true story that occurred during the Cold War. In 1957, insurance lawyer, James “Jim” B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), is asked by his firm to defend a Russian spy arrested in New York – the elderly Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). It’s nothing more than a ruse to show the world that America, as the self-appointed pillar of democracy, provides justice, even for its enemies. Jim isn’t expected to provide a particularly good defence. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose,” he quips.
However, being an honourable man, Jim gives it his all. His passion to see the letter of the law followed results in a massive backlash from his colleagues, the judiciary, the FBI, the media, and the American people. Even his family questions the practicality of his moral compass. Bricks are thrown through the windows of his home, and bullets fired to scare him off. But, through clever legal wrangling, Jim manages to prevent Rudolf from being sentenced to death for treason, and instead, the Russian is given a lengthy term behind bars.
Not long after Rudolf begins to serve his sentence, the CIA asks Jim to help negotiate the release of American pilot, Francis Gary Power (Austin Stowell), who was sentenced in Russia after his spy plane was shot down over Soviet Territory. The task: begin unofficial talks for a prisoner exchange with the Soviets in East Berlin. Despite the inherent danger and the warning that he’d be disowned by the U.S. government if caught, Jim agrees. He drives a hard bargain with both the East Germans and Russians though. Not only does he ask that Powers be released, but he demands that a young American economics student, Frederic Pryor, who was arrested in East Berlin, should also be let go, in a two-for-one deal.
What follows is a tense and engaging story as the fish-out-of-water Jim uses his untested negotiating powers to try and save two of his countrymen, while nevertheless trying to ensure Rudolf also gets a fair deal. Jim has forged an unlikely friendship with the gentle Russian agent, whose Scottish accent and talent for oil paint portraits lend his character to compassion, turning him into a hero. Rudolf’s stoicism mystifies Jim. “Aren’t you worried?” Jim asks the spy several times. “Would it help?” Rudolf calm answers.
Spielberg masterfully builds the suspense in this film, which is somewhere between a historical thriller and comedy-drama. The inimitable Hanks provides another award-worthy performance as the determined Jim. The dark humour of both Jim and Rudolf provides the lightness that makes Bridge of Spies more than just another retelling of a historical event. This is perhaps due to the scriptwriting of genre-bending directors and writers, Joel and Ethan Coen who, along with Matt Charman, adapted Jim’s account of the incident for the screen.
The story contrasts East versus West; the cinematography that shows freezing snow and dilapidated buildings in Berlin is seen through a grey filter, while New York has more light. The title of the film itself refers to the Glienicke Bridge that connects Potsdam, in former East Germany, with Berlin, in former West Germany. Showing the building of the Berlin wall is perhaps an obvious play to provide a critique of communism, and yet, it’s subtle enough not to detract from the central plot. There’s a scene on a train which connects the two parts of the city, in which Jim is shocked as he witnesses some East Berliners being shot at the wall, as they make a desperate run to scale the structure and flee to the West. In a later scene, Jim sees a group of young boys in Brooklyn, scaling a fence as they commit some innocent mischief.
Bridge of Spies is certainly a crowd-pleaser, but in this case it’s not a derisive description, and most critics seem to agree. The themes of justice, friendship, and honour are appealing and leave the viewer with feelings of goodwill and faith in humankind.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell
Rating: 4 out of 5
SA release date: 6 November 2015