The thing that continues to intrigue me about Bridge of Spies is the collaboration between Director Stephen Spielberg and the Coen brothers who garner a writing credit. I didn’t think major artistic collaborations like this happened ever. I may be wrong. To be fair the Coens shared a writing credit with Mark Charman who I suspect provides this film with its factual core. Despite the heavy minds in the creative department, this film feels very much like a Spielberg film with Catch Me if you Can and Schindler’s List coming to mind.
Spielberg serves us quite the meticulous and wordless opening aligning us with one of the film’s key characters. We have a solidly constructed scoreless opening with Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) kicked off with an interesting establishing shot that has Abel, an art aficionado, stand before a mirror with his reflection and a painting with his image – both spitting images of this soon to be captured spy. Spielberg appears to be saying something about what is and what appears to be. Which is more real to you – the accurate reflection of what is or the meticulously accurate portrait of what is. Maybe we should all be focusing on the actual image (which is Abel with his back to us).
Enter Donovan, an insurance lawyer, who has been charged with defending Abel following his capture by the FBI on charges of espionage for the Soviet Union. The powers that be want a show trial – the appearance of justice. Donovan is driven by something more than the mere appearance of justice. Donovan believes in “the rulebook. We call it the constitution,” he adds. This conviction is what drives Donovan and what his gives his character substance hence my Schindler comparison. He is all about upholding the constitution and so he actually tries to mount a defence for Abel, arguing that the seizure of evidence was unconstitutional and making the case that the death penalty would be a bad move.
Donovan notes that Abel should be treated as we would want any American POW to be treated. Abel was just doing his job for the Soviet Union and isn’t a traitor or guilty of treason he adds. It’s the same job a number Americans were recruited to engage in on mother Russia like the first-time spy pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) whose mission goes south and is eventually captured by the Russians. Powers is on his own for the most part with the expected deniability on the part of the American state till they decided a prisoner swap would be effected. We then have our protagonist being sent to mediate the exchange. This humble insurance lawyer obliges and finds himself in East Germany. Donovan is the man who will go above and beyond with a noble conviction serving as his drive and we genuinely find grace in that.
Bridge of Spies proceeds to builds tension through simple conversation with the business-like negotiations as Donavan runs back forth between West and East Germany and there is the temptation to forget there are lives on the line as the pacing and wit makes proceeding quite the enjoyable romp. Spielberg maybe realises this and decides to spice in some truly chilling images of 1960 East Germany. The shots of Soviet soldiers literally putting up the ill-famed Berlin Wall may be distressing to some. Hanks doesn’t overplay that the hero tag here. He just is still a regular lawyer doing the right and noble thing on a bigger and more complex scale. You sense people like him do not exist anymore. Think Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch.
Rylance is very good here too – terrific early on to be honest. The film seems to build around him in the early proceedings as it adopts a scoreless and wordless and very deliberate tone in line with the characters measured and mediative persona. Charman’s script emphasizes the most important attribute of any historical cinema piece – character accuracy and not necessarily factual accuracy. We also get a hint of the Coen’s comic playfulness (maybe a little too much) with the appearance of some overly quirky characters late on and the ever-present sniffles as the prisoners exchange probably gets a little too enjoyable as against tense.
Steven Spielberg is as much a fan of history as he is a fan of science fiction and he once again succeeds in baring out the aura and character of different period in time to great effect. Bridge of Spies is quite the beaming proposition with solid wit, verve and an earnest poignancy.