Brooklyn, 1957. British-Russian Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested and charged with being a Soviet spy. In order for him to receive a fair trial he is assigned a defence lawyer in the form of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan has no choice but to accept the case, despite it being a guaranteed lose for him – the judge already calls Abel “The Russian” and has no qualms with admitting he has decided Abel is a spy before the case has even begun – and the case also puts a strain on Donovan’s personal life, with his family being attacked and Donovan being shunned in public. Even the police who respond to the call from the attack threaten to fight Donovan, yet he continues and pursues the case even deeper. After the case is over, American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down using a secret spy plane, photographing key areas of the Soviet Union. When Powers is imprisoned within the USSR, Donovan is once again called upon to resolve the situation.
As Spielberg films go, this one sits very closely alongside Lincoln in terms of being, for the most part, a story involving lots of beautifully shot scenes featuring two or more men sat in cold, dusty rooms, talking about something serious but with occasional barbs of humour. This isn’t amongst the popcorn entertainment highs of Jurassic Park or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I’m not going to bat saying it’s an amazing must-see, but Bridge of Spies is a great deal better than I thought it might be. Earlier this year, in the race to the Oscars, Bridge of Spies was amongst the eight Best Picture nominees, but had you looked at the bookmaker’s odds I’d guess it would probably have been in last place. It was a foregone conclusion that this wouldn’t be bothering the stage all that much during the ceremony, and that the main award would go to either Spotlight, The Revenant or perhaps The Big Short, Room or even Mad Max: Fury Road or The Martian. This, alongside Brooklyn, was pretty much shut out. I don’t disagree with that sentiment, but I feel as though Bridge of Spies might end up being the forgotten selection amongst that list. The one that, in years to come, people won’t recollect, or will miss of lists of Spielberg’s films, being one they “never got around to seeing”. Like I said, it’s not essential viewing, but those that don’t are missing out on what is overall a thoroughly decent film.
There’s an interesting story that evolves organically into something on a grander scale that, whilst clearly a film of two distinct halves, never feels like two different films haphazardly sewn together. There are wonderfully understated performances, most notably Mark Rylance in his Oscar-winning turn as Abel. I’ve still yet to see Creed, but I find it very difficult to imagine Sylvester Stallone could pull off an acting performance as well as Rylance. He does so much with so little, creating a fully rounded character, and a sympathetic one at that, with nothing but a few background details and mannerisms. Hanks is also great, but when isn’t he? It may sound strange, but my favourite element of his performance here is a cold. Well, it’s not just part of his character, it’s more of a subtle theme running through the whole film. First Abel shows some light sniffing and nose-rubbing during a meeting with Hanks’ Donovan. Donovan then must endure cold weather, poor accommodation, a broken car heater and the loss of a coat, all perfect conditions to incubate a cold, which develops throughout the second half of the film, only for a third character seen sniffing and lightly blowing his nose as the cold is passed onto him at the end. It’s not a major aspect of the film, but it’s a little light background that I appreciated.
As you can tell by my spending a few sentences discussing the common cold, this isn’t the kind of spy film that could be considered comparable to the likes of James Bond or Bourne. This is more akin to a less incomprehensible Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but with a bit more humanity and bit less dust. That being said there are some elements of action and excitement, primarily within the Francis Gary Powers sections, which involve aerial warfare and torture. It’s only now, after my second viewing, that I realised the first time I saw this was on a plane, during which they did not cut out the plane crash sequence. This seems like something of an oversight for potential passengers of a more nervous disposition that myself.
All in all this is a solidly made and well executed film that sadly suffers from a lack of grandeur or compulsion to watch it. I liked it a great deal, from the period depiction, Donovan’s home life (he prevents his eldest daughter from dating his assistant by occupying said assistant as much as possible), some historical insights into life in Eastern Europe during the 1950s and genuinely interesting human dilemmas. It’s not an essential movie, but it is a good one.
Choose Film 8/10