Bridge of Spies is film school 101, an old school spy tale woven by a master. The Matt Charman and Coen bros. penned script is a meat and potatoes thriller through and through. We meet Tom Hanks’ Lawyer James Donovan in the middle of a conversation. It’s a fitting into as the entire film is literally about the art of conversation and communication. Spielberg and co. argue that it’s downright essential to safety and success. Bridge is not an overtly political film but you can’t help but feel its relevance to the world of today. The spy games kickoff when the Soviet Union captures U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers after shooting down his spy plane. The CIA enlists James Donovan to negotiate his release after he defended convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Their plan is to negotiate a prisoner exchange in the shadows of Berlin.
On the surface it’s in line with his recent darker and more Adult movies, but its heart is the warm and comforting Spielberg of old. Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance are both excellent and have some of the best chemistry I’ve seen all year. I mentioned the Coen bros. having a writing credit, but know that it plays less like a Coen Brothers script and more like a standard drama filled with their symbolic and repetitive lines. Towards the middle I began to start moving around in my seat wondering if it was gonna have another gear, but then a conversation took a turn and had me on the edge of my seat.
I found this happening a few times and I think it’s because the film is a soup of genre pictures. Mixed together is a tale of family, an espionage thriller, a courtroom drama, a pilot adventure film. All of these elements should make the film feel crowded and obtuse, but Spielberg shifts between them near seamlessly, specifically in the 2nd half. Of course, some elements taste better than others. Frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, to me, is a bit of a misstep at times. It can be striking with its shadows and bright light, but with so many different genres it sometimes feels at odds with the story. It’s oddly distracting.
Spielberg picks up the pieces in the latter half, puts on a clinic in directing, and essentially turns it into one of his best this century. We’ve all seen this before, but damn he makes it engrossing. Every single shot, in my estimation, is motivated to tell the story. In most people’s hands this script would’ve felt dull. It’s really just a film about people talking, but that latter half of the films’ conversations are the most important thing in the world at that moment.
Out of nowhere the film started pulling on my heart strings and I realized that Spielberg had done it once again. Yeah, it often plays like a little brother to Lincoln (2012), but that being great and this merely being very good speaks to Spielberg’s legendary filmography. There’s conversations that drag and less interesting gears in the plot, but the third act tightens the suspense and then releases it to give us a big cinematic hug. Spielberg you talented bastard! Bridge of Spies is a well oiled old school thriller set during the Cold War where language is the hero and our guide to freedom.