What if I told you that the plot of a new spy thriller revolved around an insurance lawyer equipped with words instead of futuristic gadgets and spend the last act of the film with an unshakeable cold? I’d imagine not many of you would be shelling out your dollars at the trailer unless it was directed by someone big, like say, Spielberg or something. But what are the odds of that? For too long, our serving of spy movies has meant three things: cool gadgets, smart quips and insane stunts that no one but Tom Cruise can pull off, that people tend to forget that at the heart of true espionage lie inconspicuousness, constant threat and above all, a sharp mind. It is into such a world of yesteryear agents who fought the Cold war behind locked rooms and sealed windows that Steven Spielberg takes us; a world where patriotism meant everything and the harsh truths of which reflect on the events that transpire this very moment in our time. And at the very heart of this world of fear is the story of a master negotiator who through his determination to make every man matter perhaps stayed the consumption of our planet by nuclear holocaust. Bringing together the two mammoths of Americana in film history, Bridge of Spies is a tightly wound cold war thriller possessed by so intimately emotional and chucklesome a core that it is easy to forget that this very real story transpired not much longer than half a century ago.
We are introduced into this old-fashioned world of the 50s through a frail old man surrounded by his paintings; whose every measured movement and brushstroke exudes patience: not the typical glamorous or well-built smooth-talker we are used to seeing in this role. No, he is sure to remind the audiences more of their grandpa than James Bond, and the film is about his being rescued from American captivity by the one unlikely friend he makes in the fortunately empathetic form of Tom Hanks. To reduce the plot of the film to just that though would be to see Rudolf Abel the Russian as the American population did back then. In a time when tension was the order of the day and secret agents ran international relations, on one unlikely man would fall the fate of two nations (or more) in this intricately woven tale that spans the darkest of global fears. Jim Donovan was an insurance lawyer whose surgical precision with words turned him sniper for the diplomatic war that was raging. This was a world that had still not shaken off the chills of the Holocaust and lay in the wake of the two shroom-clouds that bloomed in Japan, and with nuclear war was on the brink, information was everything and every step demanded calculation. This is the story of an unsung hero – a ‘standing man’ as Rudolf called him – who for some strange but fortunate reason stood unshaken in the face of harshest domestic winds to stand for what he believed was justice.
From the very first frame where the camera finds Rudolf sitting on a stool faced with two images of himself, one can notice the cunning intelligence of the director. And I personify the camera here for that is just what Spielberg does: impart his life to the camera so that it may sneak around the characters he wants to display and catch the smallest of moments. With every motion, it is hard to ignore the measured mind of the camera which uncannily reflects the actions of most men in this feature. The audience is introduced immediately to what is to be the recurring shade through the film: of the shadows that lurk behind the strings, and how one man may be painted differently by different political artists blinded by loyalty. What Spielberg presents to us is a film of clever juxtapositions that make one marvel at the brilliance of the filmmaking and at the same time shudder in cold sweats over the history lesson which we seem to have never learnt. A cold war thriller in its truest sense, the film steers away from the blood and overt drama, to a more subdued space where the gears behind the war turn, telling stories of men who have conversations that their governments cannot. The film navigates its way through many a character – at times one too many, but I’ll get to that – as it tries and almost entirely succeeds as a wake-up call to the United States now as it was then, all the while shaded in the rich Americana that Spielberg pioneered on screen.
What sticks with the audience the most, after the moving story and themes themselves is the exquisitely refined imagery that remains constant no matter where story goes – from the busy streets of New York to the walled street of Berlin. Every image in the film, most of them starring in our history textbooks, is set with breathtaking grandeur and filled with hushed coldness, very befitting the atmosphere of the 50s. Every movement of the camera too reflects this highly dramatic air, with a cold pace that both sets our nerves on guard from the very opening scene. What I found personally fascinating was the almost photographic reproduction of the dingy streets of New York, and the ultimate thriller setting of umbrellas in the rainy streets, which has never before carried such finesse. From this urban-American neighbourhood we find ourselves transported along with Donovan to the chilling and bullet-riddled snow of Berlin, where the Berlin Wall stands, dividing an entire population in the far-reaching effects of the Second World War. Equally striking in its imagery, the decision to not go too deep into the details of the German conflict was a wise one in this case, as the movie already has enough interludes which I will talk about later. The director sure knows how to impart gravitas to his productions, and has proven himself equally capable in inspiring awe as well as suspicious tension. Really, there’s nothing more that wants stating: Spielberg refuses to let us down this time as well.
It is in the midst of all this unease and mistrust that we find Jim Donovan, a beacon of light that the audience learns to hold on to like moths to candlelight. Now, my problems with this film lies in its treatment of character and script, for which I feel the casting of Tom Hanks is both inspired and at the same time lazy on the part of the scriptwriters. While I know that the brothers Coen are well known for screenplays that tease the quirky bones of the audience, they were probably not the best people for this particular job. There are many times we feel ourselves taken out of the dramatic intensity of the plot with misplaced humour and weirdly structured dialogue. While this sort of dialogue is indeed what the Coens are well known for, in light of the distinctly Spielbergian direction it comes off as jarring. This isn’t to mean Bridge of Spies deserves only cold and solemn moments, and there were several conversations, especially those between Donovan and Rudolf where the comedy was suiting and indeed imparted the light much needed in that era of war. This brings me to the problem of character: while Tom Hanks absolutely nails it in this role, I cannot but feel that any other actor in his shoes would not gain the trust of the audience. If you look past the face, Donovan’s dialogue comes off nasty in many places and leads to a very different image; that of a stern man, uncomfortable to be around though righteous in his ways. The slapping on of Hanks’ in the lead role felt to me a cover-up for what the character himself lacked in. This defect is seen more pronounced in other characters: particularly that of the CIA agent whose performance and dialogue both are lacking in any character besides drawing resentment from the audience. In fact, the character comes off as so spectacularly disjointed that it is as if he walked into this movie straight off a cartoon.
In contrast, the character of Rudolf Abel was nothing short of masterful: admittedly a real person, the methodical portrayal of the old man calls out Mark Rylance for an Oscar. The decisive and unwavering spirit behind those frail eyes was captured with grace unmatched by anyone else in the production, making all of us believe that for this frail man, the uncertainty of his fate does not disturb. And it is because of this that we immediately take to him just as Donovan did, forming a bond that transcends nations and loyalties in pursuit of justice. The one thing Bridge of Spies does effectively – resonating with Forrest Gump in the process – is its continuing observation of events through Donovan’s eyes, making him and a generation of Americans realise the far-reaching effects of the war and how shielded they have been in comparison. It is clear that an overarching purpose of the film is to induce a sense of worldliness, to see things from another man’s perspective and understand one another in situations equally difficult for all sides. While this might have been the reason for inclusion of the American spy pilot’s (Gary Powers) story in the plot, I cannot help but feel, as everyone will, that it caused more distraction than much else. This is mostly due to the clearly less compelling story on this side, as opposed to that of the Russian spy caught in America which never works well for juxtaposition. Spending the same time and effort on each side of the story was not only advantageous but necessary to the title and the theme of the film being clearly a bridge between two worlds. I do get the feeling that Gary Powers’ narrative might have been more fleshed out in earlier drafts, but then cut to fit the runtime. Like it is often said by directors in defence of criticism, there might just be a better version of this film in Spielberg’s pocket.
That last statement should neither be taken to mean that this is a bad film (a reasonable assumption to make, considering that the excuse I paraphrased was taken from Fant4stic’s Josh Trank), nor does it reduce the brilliance of the one story it did effectively tell. Perhaps the better film in this case would have been one which limited itself to Donovan and Rudolf, clearly the more compelling story forged. Bridge of Spies is a rabbit-hole too easy to get lost in if you aren’t a stickler for action-heavy films. Despite the wavering of atmosphere in certain parts, the film does manage to be admittedly and suitably cold in temperament. And once those parts are overlooked, what we are left with is a delicious and moving Cold War thriller that is sure to leave you satisfied by the time the heart-warming end rolls around. What Bridge of Spies offers us is a slice of life from the pages of the ‘standing man’ and his unlikely bond with a man his whole nation had condemned enemy. It is a story of strength, and of rising up to defend true justice in face of all that may come, in effect building a bridge between worlds torn by war.