Bridge of Spies

On this Spielberg scale, this is unfortunately more War Horse than Munich.
Sarah Ward
Published on November 10, 2015


Even if you enter Bridge of Spies unaware of its director, it soon becomes obvious that Steven Spielberg is at the helm. Tom Hanks popping up on screen, as he did in Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal before this, offers one such indication of the man behind the camera, although the clues certainly don’t stop there. The way the story is handled, the heavy-handed score that tells audiences what to feel rather than trusting the storytelling to do so, as well as the almost overbearing sense of righteousness that infuses every scene, all do plenty to give away the Spielberg touch.

Under his guidance, the actor many likely wish was their dad lives up to that fantasy as an ordinary, upstanding guy driven by a desire to do what's right. Hanks’ character, the real-life James B. Donovan, is a tax lawyer taken out of his comfort zone, yet always guided by his strong moral compass. He's asked by the government to undertake the unpopular role of representing Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent found on U.S. soil, at his controversial and highly publicised espionage trial. Next, Donovan is tasked with negotiating Abel's return to his homeland in a trade for captured American operatives. And yes, for anyone wondering about the movie's name, at one point the spies really do stand on a bridge – although the film's moniker speaks more to the network that springs up between warring sides.

As he journeys to the unsafe streets of post-WW2 Berlin to broker a deal, Donovan's involvement must remain secret and officially unsanctioned — at least as far as the public and the record of the time are concerned. Accordingly, Bridge of Spies never misses the opportunity to bluntly idolise its protagonist, nor stress the strength of his character as he rallies for a person, an approach and good old-fashioned due process when no one around him will share his views.

That's not to say that any of these points are unreasonable, or that the praise isn't earned. It's just that Spielberg, initial screenwriter Matt Charman, and script tinkerers Ethan and Joel Coen (yes, the brilliant minds behind Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Inside Llewyn Davis) rarely let the story breathe beyond their laudatory viewpoint. Given that they certainly take their time unraveling all the necessary information and intricacies, it's an approach that proves both distracting and disappointing.

Of course, Spielberg crafts a polished film regardless, and one remarkably visually textured from its almost silent opening. Hanks, too, remains a likeable, reliable lead. The real star of the show though, other than the actual events that the movie didn't need to depict in such an emotional fashion, is Tony and Olivier award-winning theatre actor Rylance. If the rest of the feature seems to strive to simplify something complex for the sake of sentiment, he's proves the humanised and genuinely heartfelt opposite. Audiences could be forgiven for wishing that the rest of the film followed his lead, and was more like Spielberg's blistering Munich and less like his sappy War Horse.


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