Sunday, 25 October 2015

Bridge of Spies - initial thoughts

Bridge of Spies sees Spielberg reunite with Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me if You Can star Tom Hanks, in a film written by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen. 

If you want the tl;dr synopsis, it’s Spielberg doing as Spielberg often does - directing well made, intelligent yet accessible, entertaining adult drama.

Some spoilers abound, by the way.

Looking at the film itself, it almost comprises two halves. The first, around the capture and defence of alleged Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. The second, a more conventional spy thriller surrounding the negotiations for the exchange of Abel to the Soviets, in exchange for recently captured reconnaissance pilot Francis Powers.

Perhaps unexpectedly, it is the first half of the film that stuck with me upon exiting the cinema. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) has been tapped on the shoulder to defend Abel, accused of espionage. He is to be given a trial, with a vigorous defence. But of course he is guilty, so not too vigorously. Such questions, raised in the context of the cold war are still relevant. Does the criminal de jour enjoy the same rights and protections afforded under the constitution and legal framework as do citizens? In this case, even if Abel is guilty as a spy, and a foreign national, being charged through the criminal justice system, should he be afforded the same privileges as an American citizen? Parallels run with questions asked in recent years around how to try Bin Laden, or more locally, someone like David Hicks. 

Donovan believes in the rule of law, and that everyone is entitled to a vigorous defence, not just a token effort, but to explore all issues in the means of defending his client. He seems to be just about the only person who does though. The judiciary, the executive (via the CIA and police force), the media, the general public… as presented they’re all more than ready to gather the torches and pitchforks and storm the castle. 

From there the film moves in to more of a thriller in the conventional sense, as Donovan is asked to officially “unofficially” negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers, as well as  Frederic Pryor, an American graduate student arrested in East Berlin. This sees Donovan trying to balance the competing interests of the American, Soviet and East German parties, while trying to win the argument that every life matters. It is during this in particular that the production design and cinematography stand out.

Hanks is excellent as James Donovan. Some have recently emphasised Matt Damon’s skills representing the everyman, as relates his performance – the same could be said here of Hanks. Caught up in circumstances he doesn’t necessarily want to be involved in, he tries see it through to the best of his ability while embodying all that the American ideal is supposed to represent.

However, as good as Hanks is, I was more impressed by Mark Rylance as Abel.  Rather than a figure of menace or evil, Rylance portrays Abel as stoic figure, a “good soldier”, deserving of our empathy. A Best Supporting Actor nomination would not be out of place here.

The repeated phrasing of “good soldier” brings about comparisons between Abel and Powers. He may be “the enemy”, but is he any different at heart to Powers? Such mirroring is used frequently throughout Bridge of Spies. In one of the more interesting juxtapositions, while it seems a shock, anger and outrage to all concerned that Abel is sentenced to only 30 years imprisonment, American spy Powers is sentenced to 10 years to cheering. More obviously, one could compare the different uses of a coin or the train rides in New York or East Berlin.

While the end result is never really in question, the journey along the way is interesting, asking of the viewer some unexpected questions, in,  as the Sydney Morning Herald review noted, balancing the sentimentality that you'd expect from Spielberg, with the cynicism that you'd associate with the Coen brothers.

Highly recommended.


  1. Great review. Got me excited to go see the film even more. Hope you write more film reviews. Also has me interested to see A.I. finally to see how Kubrick's work on that originally worked with Spielberg's sentimentality following on from discussion of how the Coens have matched up with Spielberg in Bridge of Spies. I loved Lincoln and this seems to be another period piece Spielberg is making while commenting on something contemporary.

  2. I thought we saw AI in the cinemas, and walked out somewhat disappointed?

  3. Not me buddy, that must have been Timmeh. Should have seen it with you.