STEVEN Spielberg tackles the Cold War in Bridge of Spies, a complex yet fairly entertaining espionage thriller based on true events which sees him teaming up with Tom Hanks for a fourth time.
Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested and charged in Brooklyn with being a Soviet spy and his defence comes in the form of reluctant lawyer James Donovan (Hanks).
Aware of the negative publicity and family tensions that defending Abel will have, Donovan goes ahead with the philosophy that everyone is entitled to a defence. Abel is found guilty but somehow avoids the death sentence in favour of a custodial sentence thanks to Donovan arguing for such in a private meeting with the judge.
In the meantime, during a confidential mission over Soviet territory, an American fighter plane is shot down and the pilot Francis Powers is arrested and held prisoner. Also, a young American economics student named Frederic Pryor finds himself arrested, this time in East Berlin, when trying to smuggle his girlfriend into the West, right as the wall is being constructed.
As the USSR suggests an exchange with Powers’ release for Abel’s, Donovan travels to Berlin where he works to secure not only the release of Powers but Pryor too, even at the risk of derailing all negotiations entirely.
In his first film since Lincoln, Spielberg proves yet again that though his greatest days are long behind him, he can still do a good job at paying tribute to the American spirit. Good as Bridge of Spies is, the one thing that would need to be advised is that when going in, it does require the brain to be switched on.
With a script jointly penned by the Coen Brothers and Mike Chapman (who co-wrote this year’s Suite Francaise), this is a film that is easy to recommend to those who love their history as well as legal and espionage works.
On the other hand, to get a full grip of the film, those who are looking for a piece which is not too taxing should not expect anything entirely memorable. It requires an entire sense of concentration and though the film is interesting, there are sequences which often confuse and leave one wanting a more straightforward notion to fully understand what is being discussed.
Spielberg does a very good job of directing the film at times, notably at the start when a half-dressed Abel is confronted by agents, but, thanks to his hobby of painting, somehow secretly discards the number codes he possesses with paint.
He also brings genuine intensity in two scenes, the first of which features the downing of Powers’ plane and the desperate attempts to escape the carnage. The real chills are felt however in a brief sequence where Donovan witnesses on a train a group of people being shot as they almost succeed at climbing over the Berlin Wall. It isn’t enough to win a third Oscar but there are some familiar feelings a viewer can often get from a Spielberg film where it feels they are in a place they would not want to be in.
Hanks in the suitable role of the moral Donovan once again positions himself as the most likable actor in the world today, the James Stewart for our generation. Even as his house is shot at and the police officer investigating the incident berates him for his defence of Abel, he stands ground, demonstrating to his children the view of helping others.
A well-written conversation between him and a mysterious CIA agent highlights him as the sort of lawyer you would want on your side, where he states the constitution as an example for why he does what he does.
Rylance, more used to the theatre, proves that a more visible screen presence would be welcome in his role as the softly-spoken Abel who from public reaction is supposed to a detestable villain, but is really nothing of the sort. Even as he faces the prospect of imprisonment and death, he stays totally calm throughout to the point where you ultimately want the negotiations to succeed for him just as much as the American prisoners, not to mention Donovan.
By the end, it feels a bit complex to work as a great film, but does for the most part bring a sense of fair entertainment in addition to a good performance from its lead actor of a likable character.