Although they are set nearly a century apart, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies bears striking similarities to Lincoln. Both films are dialogue-based procedurals where fundamentally decent men navigate through high-level negotiations. But while Lincoln is about the passage of the thirteenth amendment, Bridge of Spies tells a relatively unknown story, one that would set the basis for all major Cold War conflicts. Spielberg’s style is showy yet thoughtful, and the script (punched up by The Coen Brothers) juxtaposes canny diplomacy with unaffected humor. This thoughtful, involving movie might just be Spielberg’s best since Munich.
Before Tom Hanks’ welcome presence reassures us, Spielberg spends a long time with Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy. Unassuming and ordinary-looking, Abel is the sort of man whose lackadaisical attitude is a cover for a sharp mind and steely determination. Abel lives in Brooklyn, passing his time with his paints before picking up the latest Soviet intelligence. The authorities catch him red-handed, and the Justice Department want the appearance of due process as part of the Cold War’s PR campaign. Hanks plays James Donovan, the insurance attorney who ends up being Abel’s advocate. Defending Abel does not exactly thrill Donovan, yet they like each other and Donovan’s annoyed because his colleagues are eager to throw the book at his client. The first half of Bridge of Spies is about Abel’s trial, culminating with Capra-esque monologue at the Supreme Court, and the second focuses on Donovan’s efforts to negotiate an exchange between Abel and an American pilot that the Russians have taken prisoner.
Spielberg accomplishes something tricky here: his infrequent action scenes help establish a mood of danger and paranoia, yet they never distract too much from the dialogue scenes. Before all the chatter, Bridge of Spies opens with the bravura chase through the New York subway, one that brims with suspense since all the players are so ordinary. There are so implausible action flourishes, just doughy men trying to do their jobs. The Cold War mood is necessary for the set-up of the Donovan character: Spielberg and his screenwriters have the confidence to give just enough information so we can make up our minds about him, and like him all the better for it.
Donovan’s family is not given the same sort of nuance, and are instead relegated for context and background. His children are shown horrific nuclear imagery then told they’ll be safe if they hide under their desks, so we’re quick to agree with Donovan that maybe the anti-Soviet zeal is over-the-top. Veteran character actor Dakin Matthews shows up as Abel’s judge, and his outspoken prejudice is downright shocking. Donovan wisely hides his feelings about Abel, except in welcoming little tics that Hanks perfected over the years.
The business of Abel’s trial generates and tension through injustice. Wry and stoic, Abel never gives the Americans any suggestion he will crack, so we start to share Donovan’s frustration over his treatment (a veteran theater actor, Rylance gives the film’s best performance). This parallel development of Abel/Donovan is necessary for the second half of Bridge of Spies, which gets into dense intrigue and strategy. Donovan negotiates for the Americans in East Berlin, and Spielberg is careful to shoot the city so it’s ominous and unwelcoming (there is a horrific scene where Donovan witnesses an unsuccessful attempt to climb the Wall, which was just built).
Once in Berlin, Spielberg uses Hanks’ considerable charm in an understated way. As he faces one discomfort after another, he internalizes something that would inform all future Cold War diplomacy: saving face is more important than any final result, and optimizing outcomes so that all countries preserve dignity is the only way to stop annihilation. Donovan makes a lot of assumptions, playing East Germany and Russia against each other, and how they come together on the titular bridge is a delicate high-wire act that’s about as satisfying as any climax this year. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg’s camera placement is never predictable, and how he positions his characters is often more important than what they’re saying.
Spielberg, Hanks, and The Coens make the most of the fish-out-of-water sub-plot that informs Donovan’s trip to Germany. He must deal with shadowy CIA officials, duplicitous Russian diplomats, and annoyed German lawyers. Hanks reacts to them with a mix of incredulity and bemusement, so they are a welcome reprieve from the dangerous situation he’s in. In a truly bizarre scene, Russian hired actors pretend to be Abel’s family just so they can go through the motions of propaganda. Still, everyone except Abel and a couple other high-level officials are tertiary characters who exist primarily to give Donovan nuance. Amy Ryan has a thankless role as Donovan’s wife, which is both disappointing and entirely expected. Even the pilot character and another American prisoner are immaterial, serving as little more than bargaining chips. I suppose that’s the point to Bridge of Spies: all these talks and debates are necessarily impersonal.
Bridge of Spies further cements that Spielberg is a great chronicler of history, one who cuts through details in order to find the essential values that inform it. This is not an attempt at broad entertainment, like the Indiana Jones films, and the lack of young characters means this is a perfect movie to watch with your dad, instead of the sort of one he would watch with you. Despite its dense script, Spielberg still finds room for his trademark face, the sort of character reflection that signals when we’re meant to experience awe. The Spielberg face in Bridge of Spies happens late in the film, and is relatively low stakes: instead of seeing incredible creatures or overwhelming danger, the faces are about an earnest understanding of what it means to be a great American. In a period where we hardly value sacrifice anymore, Spielberg and his collaborators realize that’s enough.