THIS IS A masterful piece of filmmaking: measured, confident, compelling. It tells the story of James B Donovan (the ever engaging Tom, Jimmy Stewart, Hanks) a successful insurance lawyer (and one of the prosecutors on the Nuremberg trials). Donovan has been persuaded by the government to represent Rudolf Abel (the brilliant English stage actor, Mark Rylance), a Russian spy.
The government’s appointment of Donovan is a piece of PR window dressing: their desire is not really about justice; it’s merely to give the world the impression of great, blind, American justice at work. Donovan – decent, earnest and honorable – however is the fly in the ointment. He takes his job seriously. For him, the demands of the constitution mandate that even this most hated man in America deserves a fair trial. But the government (as governments go) and the public, baying for blood, are unconcerned about the niceties of justice and the constitution (think Guantanamo). They all just want this ‘traitor’ (He’s not a traitor, Donovan argues: he’s a Russian. He’s a spy. He was doing his job) dead.
And therein lies the idea that drives this profoundly relevant film: America was built on and stands for certain deeply moral ideals… but these ideals the film suggests are forever threatened by expediency and a kind of squalid populism. Spielberg offers up a number of -slyly critical – contrasts: when Abel is convicted and given thirty years (spared the death sentence just in case he’s of greater value alive), the American audience at the trial boos and demands the death penalty. But when an American spy is similarly sentenced in Russia, for ten years, the Russian trial audience there cheers. To them, justice has been done. We see multiple scenes of people desperate to flee the walled in, increasingly lawless East Berlin for…a ‘free’ West. But really this ‘free West’, as embodied by America, is a place where the rule of law is dangerously fragile… where Donovan, as the archetype of fearless justice, becomes a hated person simply for upholding the law.
The story turns when an American spy aircraft is shot down over Russia and, fearful of their secrets falling into enemy hands, the two governments, using proxies, back channels and East Berlin, arrange a prisoner swap: Abel for the shot down pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Once again, Donovan is dragooned into service as the one who must negotiate the swap, in secret, as a private citizen, with an ever-shifting nest of bureaucrats, spies and secret police.
It’s a compelling story, brilliantly told. Written mainly by the Coen brothers, the story is teased out without ever lapsing into polemic. Hanks himself dominates and carries the movie; he’s in almost every scene. And he manages to inject a rich sense of nuance and humanity in what is (as a symbol of decency and moral certitude) essentially a pretty flat character. (Though I wish I’d seen more fear, doubt even loneliness to break across the calm stoicism of his Donovan)
As for Spielberg’s directing: his careful observing eye (little touches, like the click of what would then have been new fangled ball-point pens) his textured moodiness (Donovan/Hanks running through the streets of a dark, rainy East Berlin) and his restless camera (with long time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) that drifts through crowds, creeps into half-lit rooms and allows us to discover this world of shadows and danger as if we were there.
With “Bridge of Spies”, Spielberg has given us a terrifically tense action movie… where there really isn’t very much action. People meet in bars, in jail cells, in board-rooms; they drink Scotch, they stare down each other. And it’s all as electrifying as “Spectre”.
And more: it’s surprisingly tender; and, lifting it well above its genre, believably heartwarming.
Bridge of Spies. Dir: Stephen Spielberg. With Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan. Screenplay: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski. Composer: Thomas Newman (“Skyfall”)