Spielberg’s latest collaboration with Tom Hanks is an interesting Cold War thriller that is eventually flawed by its unevenness.
Based on true events, ‘Bridge of Spies’ follows the story of insurance lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) who is drafted by the US government to organize the release of an American spy, Gary Powers incarcerated by the Soviets, in exchange for a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) being detained in America.
The first half of the film, set in a paranoid 1960’s America, sees Hanks’ civilian lawyer unwittingly acting as defence lawyer to the imprisoned Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). This segment of the film recalls similar settings and visuals to an earlier Spielberg and Hanks collaboration in the form of 2002’s ‘Catch Me If You Can’. However, it is more reminiscent of John Nash’s delusions in Ron Howard’s 2001 film, ‘A Beautiful Mind’ (also largely set during the Cold War years in America).
At about 40 minutes into the film, the story takes a rather unexpected turn from an engaging and provocative legal drama to an international espionage thriller, when Donovan is sent to Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers. Whilst this unorthodox change of plot should, theoretically inject the film with some excitement and a much faster pace. It actually does the complete opposite. Once in Berlin, the story becomes an overly long thriller filled with clunky dialogue and scenes of Tom Hanks talking to one Russian ambassador after another. The film becomes slow, often dull at times as we wait for the deal to be brokered so that we can all go home.
However, having said this, like Kubrick did so wonderfully well in ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Spielberg manages to combine comedy with the undeniably macabre topic of the doomsday scenario of the Cold War. The film is littered with witty one-liners and amusing scenarios that add a much-needed relief from the seriousness of the themes at hand. This is in no doubt almost entirely down to the addition of the Coen Brothers, who were asked to bulk up the script. Joel and Ethan Coen immediately came to mind for example when, after being arrested in his underwear, the Russian spy Abel quietly requests whether he can have his false teeth returned to him.
Hanks gives his usual assured, safe, well-mannered performance of a character out-of-his-depth, relying on his charm and instincts to pull him through any situation thrown at him. But it is Mark Rylance’s performance as Russian Rudolf Abel who is the film’s highlight. Rylance puts in an extremely reserved, minimalistic performance as the timid traitor of the US government, but is excellent in his role as prisoner. It’s a shame that he only has such a small amount of screen time because his rapport with Hanks is easily the film’s highlight.