Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s fourth film together. Saving Private Ryan (1998) is a modern classic (despite its flaws). Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a fun ride. The Terminal (2004) is admirable if largely forgettable. As the two have gotten older, their choices of projects have changed, but they both still seem to be intrigued by history and reflecting the past onto our present. Bridge of Spies feels like a story told by two friends who see a world bent on blood for blood, who see reason and negotiation falling by the wayside, replaced by pride and force. It is told by older and wiser men, the style and acting very subtle, building up simple moments of suspense, such as waiting for a telephone call. The result is a solid, if unspectacular film.
James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance salesman (formerly part of the prosecution at Nuremberg) who is tasked with defending a known Communist spy. Hated by most Americans for standing with such a man, Donovan simply states that all men, whatever their crime, should be met with dignity and justice as ordained in the Constitution. When a U2 spy plane pilot is shot down and captured over the Soviet Union, Donovan is presented with a unique opportunity; he is recruited by the CIA to negotiate a trade of his Communist spy for their American pilot.
Spielberg is in no rush with his storytelling. He glides smoothly from introducing the spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), to his trial to introducing the U2 pilot to the negotiations between nations. It is both refreshing and a bit maddening at times. A good half hour could have been cut out of the film (especially during the first act), but the deliberate pace really lets you examine the political atmosphere and think about the ideas in the film: Do foreign agents deserve the same rights as legalized Americans? What is the value of a single, innocent person in comparison to the pride of nations? Is standing for your beliefs no matter the cost worth it if you put your life and the lives of your family at risk?
Spielberg and writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman answer these questions with solutions of heartfelt understanding and respect for all people. Whether or not one’s personal view is similar is besides the point; they are presenting a vision of cultural respect and rule of law that they believe in. As the world still deals with suicide bombers, illegal immigrants, enhanced interrogation techniques and opposition to nuclear deals, the film is very timely and worth examining. Some may resent the ego of Hollywood idealism attempting to impose its views on a complex world, but few will find fault with its sentiments.
Hanks carries the film in an everyman kind of way that is easy for the viewer to relate to. Given free range to really define his character as he travels from Washington to East and West Berlin and back, his good nature and simple belief in everyone deserving a fair shake is distinctly American in the Jimmy Stewart, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-sense. Indeed, the film feels like an homage to the simple morality films of the 1950s and 1960s; fair is fair, right is right.
What could have really helped however is some form of ticking clock. There is tension throughout the narrative, but a deadline of some sort that drives Donovan would keep us on the edge of our seats. In addition, we are barely given a glimpse into the true horrors of the world Donovan is entering into. There are some moments with East German gangs and prisoners attempting to escape past the Berlin Wall, but a storyline involving prisoner Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) could have been fleshed out more to show individuals in the crosshairs of a world out of control. The result feels like a dampening down of the truth.
And then there’s the Spielberg schmaltz. It was mostly kept in check during Lincoln (2012), but it returns at times in Bridge of Spies with a vengeance. Why Spielberg can not just let the story tell itself is baffling. He must for some reason have multiple endings that overdramatize his narrative past the breaking point.
But all in all, the story is interesting and solid, its heart is in the right place, and it proves that Spielberg and Hanks still know how to churn out a good film. And that’s what Bridge of Spies is; good, not great. Not among the year’s best, but certainly something worth remembering.