Bridge of Spies is an elegant, handsome film that sits in Steven Spielberg’s filmography alongside Lincoln; both are stories about men who stubbornly follow their moral compasses in difficult, murky times, refusing to give up their decency in their pursuit of good. That Bridge of Spies is a lesser film than Lincoln - it doesn’t quite have the gripping thrills of that movie’s politicking - doesn’t make it a lesser film itself. Bridge of Spies doesn’t rank especially high in the Spielberg filmography, but that still makes it one of the best films of the year and a movie with the kind of beauty, depth and tonal control about which other filmmakers can only dream.
Tom Hanks is James Donovan, a totally square insurance lawyer who exploits the loopholes of the law while remaining true to his own middle American beliefs. His ability to do both is tested when he gets drafted by the US government to defend a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel; the powers that be want to show that American justice works… but not so well that the spy gets off. Little do they know that his belief in the sanctity of the Constitution and the justice system will lead Donovan to push - and push hard - to get this all-but-self-confessed spy off the hook.
That’s just the first act. Bridge of Spies has a structure that lopes in an interesting way; Spielberg could have made an entire film out of the Abel trial. But once that ends another layer of intrigue comes into play - Gary Francis Powers and his top secret U2 spy plane are shot down over the Soviet Union and Abel becomes a pawn in an attempt to get the American airman back, and Donovan is tasked with negotiating the whole deal. When Donovan learns the Soviets have another American in captivity he complicates everything, unwilling to leave any man behind.
Bridge of Spies takes place largely in a procession of rooms - courtrooms, judge’s chambers, embassies, run down shacks that serve as CIA safe houses - but it’s all about the conversations happening inside of these rooms. It’s also worth noting that the rooms themselves are incredible; the production design on Bridge of Spies is next level, with an incredible amount of real, tangible detail. Each of these rooms set moods, creates a tone that weaves a fabric of meaning through physical space.
One of the reasons Bridge of Spies is the lesser sibling to Lincoln is that the dialogue doesn’t quite sing the way Tony Kushner’s did (no duh, of course). The Coens are credited as having written on Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman is the other credited writer), and there are elements of wry absurdity that have their fingerprints all over it, but you would never confuse this with a Coen movie (it’s certainly better written than the last Oscar movie to have their credit, Unbroken). All of the conversations and negotiations have an absurdist edge because nobody speaks the truth; Donovan alone is a plain speaker, barrelling ahead with honesty and righteousness as his shield.
Who besides Tom Hanks could have played Donovan? This is a guy who needs to stand up to both Soviet apparatchiks and pig-headed US officials who are willing to compromise the ideals of the founding fathers to win the Cold War. You need an actor of impeccable moral authority, on and off the screen, and only Hanks has that Jimmy Stewart-level appeal required. He’s great as Donovan, nursing a cold through much of the movie, but never weakening. Donovan’s refusal to compromise would be annoying coming from any other man; here it’s inspiring.
While Hanks is good (and what else do you expect from him at this point? The guy delivers and delivers), the true standout of Bridge of Spies is Mark Rylance as Abel, the spy. A man who never worries (“Would it help if I did?” is his refrain), Abel is stoic and as committed to his beliefs as Donovan. Rylance, with his friendly shopkeeper looks, essays a vision of a Soviet spy as a man doing his job and doing it well, and with dignity and decency. He’s quietly magnetic, and probably a strong contender for a Best Supporting Actor nomination - one that he richly deserves. The best parts of Bridge of Spies see Donovan and Abel together, having a Berlin Wall spanning bromance. You know the Cold War is over when a major American movie presents a Soviet spy as… kind of a hero.
That’s a big part of what I like about Bridge of Spies - it’s downhome moral code that almost feels old fashioned. In a country that has seen Abu Ghraib it’s nice to be reminded that America doesn’t stand for torture, that it stands for equal protection under the law. It’s nice to recall that the founding principal of this nation is not cruelty but justice. It’s nice to see a movie from a major filmmaker that eschews the grey area of morality, the mindset that allows our cinematic heroes to commit atrocities in the name of the greater good, to have a movie saying the greater good isn’t so good after all if that’s how you protect it.
Bridge of Spies balances these heavier philosophical and political points with an undercurrent of bright humor, but Spielberg never loses control of it. He smoothly brings us from experiencing the grim, harsh realities of East Berlin in the days after the Wall went up to laughing at how Donovan deals with it, never losing the emotional reality of either tone. It allows Bridge of Spies to be both a breezy watch as well as a heavy-hitting meditation on political realities. And Spielberg ends it perfectly, with a scene at home that shows us how Donovan is both a hero and also a man forever changed by his experiences. Some may think this final scene is too light and too on the nose, but I found it perfect - largely because of the way Hanks plays it.
I wish Bridge of Spies had come out in 2006, when our country was taking a hard right turn into its most disastrous territory ever, when we were happily ceding the moral high ground to electrocute the genitals of men who committed the crime of being Middle Eastern and of a certain age. We needed to see this movie, to hear the courage of Donovan’s convictions - even as people on the subway glared at him and even as mysterious black cars opened fire on his home to punish him for upholding the Constitution - at the exact moment when we had lost our own,