Cold War espionage-thriller Bridge of Spies (2015) is ‘inspired by true events’, which allows legendary Hollywood director Steven Spielberg a welcome and well-used degree of artistic license. In an eerily quiet opening sequence a quarter worth far more than 25 cents appears, affixed to the underside of a park bench. Wading through the murky waters of a conflict where opposing sides fought to obtain an informational, rather than territorial, upper hand, misdirection and ambiguity is the name of the game.
Smoke and mirrors are deployed from the outset. Screen left, the face of Mark Rylance is reflected in one pane whilst a self-portrait sits as a counterpoint to the right; the British actor placed between the two. Rudolph Abel’s guilt as a Soviet spy is unquestionable; however, Rylance’s superbly dry and understated performance is notable for his gentle, softly-spoken demeanour as the so-called villain of the piece, faced with the pitchfork-wielding masses. With an unwavering (and tantalisingly unexplained) Scottish accent, his mannerisms and deadpan refrain “Would it help?” when asked why he displays no sense of worry, make it difficult to revile a man who remains committed to his cause but displays all the menace of Eeyore, blinking innocently from behind thick glasses.
Spielberg’s presentation of an honourable enemy combatant is refreshingly even-handed, an equitable balance struck between both Uncle Sam and Mother Russia. A strong turn from everyman Tom Hanks sees him play James Donovan, an insurance lawyer with a background in criminal prosecution, drafted in to show a semblance of respectability at a steamroller of a trial. With fedoras a-plenty and flash bulbs of the media crunching underfoot, Bridge of Spies is firmly set in the late 1950s but an initial meeting between accused and attorney, in which his harsh detention is questioned, alludes to recent US treatment of “foreign agents”.
Donovan and his family come under fire from all quarters and one of few weaknesses here is the marginal role assigned to his wife (Amy Ryan) who does little other than cook and express concern for her man-on-a-moral-mission other half. Comparisons could be made to the garrisons in JFK, but unlike Oliver Stone’s meticulous but sluggish inspection of the Oswald conspiracy, Spielberg – and screenwriting team of Matt Charman and the Coen brothers – sidelines any real threat of physical harm, keeping the tone relatively light without ever losing sight of the cataclysmic stakes at hand. Even at a hefty 140 minutes, Bridge of Spies maintains a solid pace. Spielberg’s mise-en-scène and the streamlined editing of long-time collaborator Michael Kahn are tremendous. Visual keys are used to great effect to keep things moving. The transitions from one scene to the next are effortlessly fluid. With metronome precision the narrative ticks back and forth to the development of the U2 reconnaissance program.
A breathtaking but catastrophic sequence at 70,000 feet leads to the capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan, drawing on no experience whatsoever, is sent to an overtly grey Berlin to negotiate an exchange with the Russians. Pushing his luck further, he aims for a two-for-one deal with the newly formed GDR who use an imprisoned economics student (Will Rogers) as a bargaining chip to gain international legitimacy. A plot that thickens like a heavy stew thankfully remains easy to digest. Bridge of Spies ranks among Spielberg’s finest work, the veteran filmmaker gilding a web of intrigue by patiently moving his chess pieces with composed assurance, technical mastery and a characteristic sense of wonderment. As Donovan races against time to pull the strings of an ever-changing deal together in Berlin, he runs past a cinema where Spartacus is playing. Bridge of Spies may not be epic in the same sense as a Kubrick masterpiece but the Schindler’s List (1993) director has again married significant historical material with top drawer storytelling to bring an immediacy and authenticity to a war that never was.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens