Active Ingredients: Wit and humor; Cast; Old-school style and sensibility
Side Effects: Struggles building momentum; Familiar visual textures
Bridge of Spies is crackerjack entertainment, a witty and simmering slow-boil of a film and a reminder of the beautiful craft that makes Spielberg so special. It’s also likely his best film in a decade.
Bridge of Spies is ostensibly a Cold War thriller, but its thrills are muted and its visual DNA harkens back to an older, pre-war style of filmmaking. Our hero fights with wit and words, not guns and gadgets. In a similar subversion of expectations, the film feels as if it were made in the early 1940s, even though its set some 15 years later. Audience might question the aesthetic wisdom of Spielberg’s classicism against the moral uncertainty of the Cold War, but it’s the perfect choice for this story, unfolding a wealth of exciting contradictions like a secret code printed on a tiny wrapper.
The first half of the film follows Tom Hanks‘ New York lawyer Jim Donovan, a solid man of unrivaled competency whose bothersome integrity complicates the sham trial of an accused Russian spy (a subtle and guarded Mark Rylance) he’s been tasked with defending. The powers that be would prefer the trial be kept above board but decidedly uncomplicated, taking legal shortcuts to convict the man. Donovan, however, performs his job the only way he knows how: competently and with integrity. When the trial concludes, however, he’s tasked to broker a secret exchange of the Russian spy for an American one in the recently-walled East Berlin. In over his head in a world of complex motivations and confused intensions, Donovan uses his homespun, black-and-white moral certainty to navigate the globe’s new political dangers.
As you can see, divisions and contradictions abound in Bridge of Spies, between the two halves of the film, the fighters of the Cold War and upholders of the Constitution, East and West Berlin, and between a postmodern political tinderbox and the decidedly premodern code of ethics Donovan uses like a weapon. As these contradictions begin to play out, they resonant more and more strongly, proving the merits of Spielberg’s seemingly-anachronistic classical style.
Philosophically, Cold War films (and especially spy films) tend to show a world of hazy borders, of battles waged off the map and mysteries set amidst the dissolution of an old world order. In Bridge of Spies, however, Spielberg subverts this ontological secrecy with an old-fashioned, resolute conviction. The film might feel too simplistic and moralistic to some, as if Spielberg were burying his head in the sand and ignoring the complex realities of the postwar world, but Bridge of Spies represents a refreshing blast of old-school sensibilities. Just as he channeled a great American filmmaker in the bucolic, John Ford-ian War Horse, he channels the comforting righteousness of Frank Capra in Bridge of Spies. A muted color palette reduces the world to black-and-white, and head-on, symmetrical shots emphasize a sturdy center, a stable force to stand on.
True, there is some moral grandstanding in both the text and the subtext of the film, but Bridge of Spies is just too damn fun to become weighted down. It moves deliberately and with purpose, weaving and unfolding its thematic concerns with precision. It also boasts a sharp sense of humor, buoyed by the supremely competent Hanks, whose sweetness and humanism mirrors the film’s own. A stacked supporting cast brings further wit and spirit to every interaction, from central figures like Rylance’s, to bit characters with a single scene (such as the various politicians Donovan wheels and deals with). Although the contributions of the Coen Brothers, who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, aren’t immediately apparent, something of the absurdity they found in small moments and background action remains, adding life and dimension to the film.
As Hanks’ Donovan professes in one key speech, reminiscent of the rhetoric of Lincoln, the Cold War may not involve armies, but it is nonetheless a true battle of ideologies, between the freedom of the West and the repression of East. This is, no doubt, a historically dubious oversimplification, but it’s also what good Americans like James Donovan believed, what they stood for. And it’s this this prism of belief, through Donovan’s point of view, that Spielberg constructs Bridge of Spies.