When a great filmmaker releases a new film, you sit up and pay attention, and there are few as respected and successful as Steven Spielberg. His craft as a storyteller and a filmmaker are responsible for some of the most beloved films ever made, and his historical works have addressed pivotal moments in our history with great care and tremendous insight. For his latest film, ‘Bridge of Spies’, he turns his eye to the murkiness of the Cold War and a little-known incident that captures the complicated politics that had the free world on the brink of destruction.
Set in 1957, the film follows insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is enlisted by the CIA to act as defence lawyer for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is being charged by the U.S. for acting as a spy for the USSR. With the U.S. public seeing Abel as the ultimate enemy, both Donovan and his family become a target for the same hate. However, when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over enemy territory and arrested, Abel becomes a bargaining chip to get Powers back and Donovan is sent to negotiate the trade on the closest thing to neutral ground... the quickly collapsing and politically volatile city of Berlin.
His previous films may have been excellent in their own right, but Spielberg really comes in swinging with ‘Bridge of Spies’, a wildly entertaining and genuinely tense Cold War thriller that might be his best film in years. Working from a screenplay by Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen, the film acts like a well-oiled machine, each cog moving with great precision, established by a breathtaking opening sequence that places you on the edge of your seat and keeps you there for the rest of the film. It’s no mean feat to give clarity to the political confusion of the Cold War and convey to a 2015 audience the sense of impending doom that hung over the world at the time, but Spielberg captures this with extraordinary immediacy. The film also manages to be great entertainment as well as a historical reenactment, something Spielberg has become a true master at.
At its heart, the film is built on the relationship between Donovan and Abel, two men forced together to represent their different countries and find must ground. Donovan’s moral stability makes him the perfect protagonist to throw at the mercy of shadowy political dealings and into the arena of Cold War Berlin. These sequences in particular are the highlight of the film, Spielberg and his team bringing Berlin and the construction of the Berlin Wall to the screen with frightening clarity. His direction is incredibly precise, and he continues to work his magic balancing lightness and tragedy on a knife's edge in such a way as only he could do. Janusz Kaminsky’s cinematography is as superb as one would expect, and the design team have done extraordinary work to bring the period to life. It’s also worth noting that this is the first film since 1985 where John Williams has not acted as composer for Spielberg, the duties instead going to Thomas Newman. Being the die-hard Spielberg fan that I am, hearing Newman’s electronic minimalism against Spielberg’s images was initially very strange, but his style works perfectly for the film and adds to the brooding labyrinthian quality of the world we’ve been thrown into.
At its heart, the film is built on the relationship between Donovan and Abel, two men forced together to represent their different countries and find must ground.
As expected, the performances are likewise brilliant. This is Tom Hanks at his best, that wonderful combination of comfort and danger. What Hanks does so well with Donovan is allowing us to see the genuine fear behind the strength of his convictions, making him a genuine everyman hero. Mark Rylance is equally superb as Abel, quiet and precise in every way. He’s a perfect collaborator with Hanks, and their scenes together are absolute magic. There’s also terrific work from Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Billy Magnussen and Sebastian Koch, but the weight of the film genuinely belongs to Hanks, and he proves once again why he’s one of the most dependably brilliant actors in the world.
It shouldn’t be as much of a pleasant surprise as it is that ‘Bridge of Spies’ is such a brilliant film, but you only realise while watching it how much we’ve missed this kind of gutsy, punchy filmmaking from Steven Spielberg. His work is at its best when it balances on the edge of danger, taking on ideas and events where good and evil are far more difficult to define. This is a top-notch Cold War thriller full of unexpected twists and turns, that somehow manages to give this important period the weight it deserves without relinquishing an ounce of enjoyment or entertainment. With the roll-out of Oscar contenders now picking up steam, ‘Bridge of Spies’ has set one hell of a bar for the others to meet. This is a genuinely great piece of filmmaking from one of the genuine greats.