Man, what do screen writers do without the cold war? Seriously. While the threat of nuclear annihilation was horrific for the people who lived through it, Hollywood built many of their great films on it. James Bond was built on the spy warfare of the time, with the addition of ridiculous gadgets and villains that made Joseph Stalin look sane but still, it was all based on the tensions between the west and Russia. Then there’s the likes of Dr Strangelove and Rocky IV which make you laugh about cold war in completely different ways. So it’s no wonder today’s screenwriters keep delving back into this period with the latest effort being Bridge of Spies.
The Soviet Union spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, The Other Boleyn Girl) has been arrested and in order to show how great the US is, the authorities are keen to make sure he gets a strong defense. In order to do that, they hire insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks, The Da Vinci Code) who goes further than anyone expected to make that Rudolf gets a fair trial.
In essence, Bridge of Spies is split into two halves. The first half is where Donovan defends Rudolf amidst criticism from the government, public and even his own family because Rudolf is an evil commie bastard and should just be sent to death. The second half is where Donovan is sent to East Germany in order to negotiate a prisoner swap between the US and the Soviet Union. The first half is definitely the stronger. It’s a sort of spiritual sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird with a lawyer defending a man ostracized by the rest of society because it is right to do so and it pulls it off, which is amazing. Not many dare try to be To Kill A Mockingbird because it’s a legend of both print and screen, but this film manages it through the strong storytelling and great interaction between Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks.
Now while the first half is stronger, the second half isn’t exactly terrible. In fact, it’s brilliant too, just less so. Most of the film is restricted to just some embassy offices with Hanks interacting with different ambassadors, which is a disappointment because the rest of the environments are so fantastically created. It helps that the script throws up a fascinating dilemma which every character seems to disagree on, creating plenty of thought within the audience as to what they’d do. But then there are some brilliant moments, such as something that Donovan witnesses when crossing over the Berlin Wall on train. It’s distressing, but hammers home the horror of the cold war.
I was slightly critical of the long conversations in the second half of the film, but it isn’t just the script that turns potential duds of scenes into a marvel to watch. It’s some of the best performances I’ve seen in a while. Tom Hanks is simply wonderful. It’s damn near impossible to get past the star power of Hanks anymore, but he gets very close to it. He’s obviously been inspired a lot by Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch (I swear this is the last time I reference To Kill A Mockingbird) but he takes it his own way by adding that special Hanks charisma. And boy, that Hanks charisma is so good I drunk it.
But with apologies to Hanks, he is blown out of the water by Mark Rylance who puts in the performance of a lifetime. It’s filled with so much subtlety it’s easy to see why many thought he didn’t deserve to win that Oscar, but everything about is near perfect. He is portraying a man who is part of a system trying to bring down our way of life, yet with only the most minor of backstories, he is immediately sympathetic. It’s due to the way Rylance treats everyone with absolute respect, even those who would rather he get the chair for what he did. The look he gives people isn’t one of contempt, but one where he actually seems like he’s listening to them. Heck, he ends up being so sympathetic you doubt that he was a Soviet spy to begin with, even though it’s pretty obvious. It’s tough to explain without turning this into a 5,000 word Sight and Sound article, but Rylance was the best actor not just in his category, but in the entire Academy Awards this year.
If you can’t tell, this film is incredibly good but there are still a few issues. The second half of the film is definitely lesser and that’s not just because of the longer negotiation scenes. Rylance’s time on screen is also reduced and as he elevates any scene he’s in about ten levels, the film naturally takes a dip when he’s not there. But other than that, there isn’t that much wrong. Maybe Donovan is too perfect of a character, but I think his stubbornness can be taken as a negative trait as I’d say he did risk someone’s life for another, perhaps recklessly.
Bridge of Spies is a damned good film and one that you should watch as soon as possible. It’s very tricky to find a film based around the cold war that finds a new and interesting aspect to explore, especially in terms of the spying part, yet this film does it by focusing on making sure those spies we see in other films get home safe rather than end up in some gulag. It’s absolutely wonderful and one that ranks with the best of Steven Spielberg’s work. And that’s saying something.