Bridge of Spies is no doubt a good film, but one that feels slightly outdated in the current cinematic landscape. While on the whole entertaining, and contemporary in execution, you do repeatedly feel you’re watching a film that’s central theme is delivered with a nationalistic schmaltz and simplicity that perhaps would sit best in ’90s Hollywood.
On Steven Spielberg‘s 31st directorial outing, we find ourselves deep in 1950s Cold War, following real-life civil liberties moralist James B. Donovan played by all-round go-to-good-guy Tom Hanks. He makes another star turn as Donovan, the American insurance lawyer tasked with the unfathomable challenge of defending Mark Rylance‘s Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, in court. However, he is admittedly overshadowed by Rylance who brings a touch of theatrical elegance and effortless conviction to a simplistic and somewhat underwritten supporting part. Considering the enigmatic effect he has, you feel slightly aggrieved he has limited screen time overall. However, the slick pace and riveting tension, along with the remainder of the ensemble cast (notably Amy Ryan and Sebastian Koch), relieve much disappointment.
The first act is palatable, establishing both characters with flair through their initial quick-witted exchanges and ostracised comradery. It suffers however from the simplistic finger-wagging central message – that every man deserves a fair trial, no matter their allegiance during wartime – and self-congratulatory tone; that what makes Americans Americans is their singular and unrivalled ability to achieve this. The second and third act certainly benefit from a change of scenery and intent – where our protagonist Donovan, having saved Abel’s life in court, must now negotiate his exchange for two American prisoners in East Berlin – raising the stakes and heightening the tension by balancing multiple plot threads.
Originally written by Mark Charman (Suite Francaise), this is a safe script that was clearly in need of some Coen Brothers‘ magic – possibly why Spielberg helmed the project once they’d sent in a redraft. Fast paced in parts but wonky and slow in others, you feel a little perplexed by the uneven rhythm. Yet the unmistakable razor-sharp charm of the Coen brothers’ comedic dialogue is effortlessly interwoven with the impending doom of Nuclear war, elevating the two-dimensional procedural plot to compelling and, at points, absorbing cinema.
This is enhanced by a bona fide technical masterclass by Spielberg. The precise framing of his shots and concise editing of his scenes provide a fluidity and sophistication we’ve sorely missed in recent years. While he’s reinforced his slick construction and delivery, we’ve possibly lost the importance of his storytelling. With Schindler’s List (1993) and Munich (2005), he used to pioneer not only how filmmakers told stories, but what stories filmmakers told. In suspense and imagery he reigns supreme, but arguably it would be refreshing to see the Spielberg we adore tackle a narrative with themes that have an immediacy and contemporary relevance.