Steven Spielberg is back on top form with Bridge of Spies, a Cold War spy drama inspired by the true story of American ‘master negotiator’ James Donovan and the Soviet spy he defended. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance make an admirable double-act, the best of humanity in a high-stakes East/West stand-off.
Bridge of Spies is a long and talky film, but it doesn’t drag because the terrific leads are served by a witty and engaging script co-written by the Coen Brothers. Spielberg’s painstaking attention to detail, and his ability to shift from the micro to the macro, mean that we can enjoy a quiet scene in which a spy is slicing open a coin with a razorblade as much as an action-packed plane bail-out. There is nothing quite as ‘classic’ here as Jurassic Park’s trembling glass of water, used to herald an approaching T-Rex, but the great director comes close when pilot and audience view his falling plane through the small round hole in the middle of his parachute.
Elsewhere, the late 50’s/early 60’s period detail is lovingly recreated, from Brooklyn to East Berlin, with its bombed-out blocks of flats and Wall-in-progress. It is a pleasure to see so many old cameras and hear the explosive pops of flashbulbs as the press go about their business.
The film starts in 1957, at the height of the Cold War, when both East and West were deploying and hunting for spies. In the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge the FBI arrest Soviet ‘Colonel’ Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a seemingly mild-mannered elderly Scottish painter. James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer, is asked by his partners to ‘defend the son-of-a-bitch’.
Donovan is an honourable man, a stickler for protocol and a firm upholder of American values (‘every person deserves a defence. Every person matters’), but his diligent work on behalf of his client jeopardises his family’s safety, as he becomes a hate figure with the US public, who want Abel hanged or sent to the electric chair. Abel is found guilty of all charges, but Donovan convinces the judge to sentence him to 30 years imprisonment, rather than death, on the grounds that Abel may one day be valuable as a bargaining chip with the USSR.
When a US pilot on a U2 photo-taking mission is shot down and captured by the Russians, Donovan’s foresight is proved correct. He is then packed off to Berlin as an unofficial negotiator with both Russians and East Germans, as the US push for a spy swap. Donovan plays a dangerous game as he seeks to free a 2nd American, a student caught by the Stasi.
Beset by an army of troubles, Tom Hanks’ brow furrows so much that it resembles that of his canine co-star in Turner & Hooch. It is to the actor’s credit that he has us rooting for him as an old-fashioned American hero, who plays by the rulebook of the Constitution. It is a dignified, down-to-earth and humane performance, in which the lawyer’s extraordinary feats and bravery are played down: he has a cold and just ‘wants to get home and go to bed.’
Negotiator and spy develop an understated rapport and there is a running joke in which Donovan marvels at Abel’s lack of concern at his dire predicament: ‘you don’t seem alarmed’, says Donovan. ‘Would it help?’ asks Abel. Mark Rylance, so wonderful in Wolf Hall, has a magnetic on-screen stillness: he acts with his eyes.