I’ve gone on about Steven Spielberg too many times to count. At 68, not only does he remain the greatest living director, as well as the pioneer of the modern blockbuster, he’s also stretched his versatility with some of the most impressive prestige pictures of all time, such as Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. Even as he gets older, he shows no sign of slowing down or losing his touch, as evidenced by his one-two punch of Tintin and War Horse in 2011, the more restrained and methodical Lincoln in 2012, and in 2016 with his adaptation of The BFG.
As for what he has going on inbetween, today we’ll talk about his Cold War espionage Thriller Bridge of Spies. A film inspired by true events of the exchange of a Soviet and American spy to be released back to their respective countries, it seemed like such a natural fit for Spielberg’s directorial eye. Yet at the same time, it also seemed like a potential change of pace to Spielberg. Regardless, Bridge of Spies stands comfortably among Spielberg’s best, and most restrained films yet.
In 1957, FBI agents entered the home of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), and arrested him on suspicion of being a Soviet Spy. Following this, New York lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) was enlisted to represent him in court, even though Abel was ultimately sentenced to serve thirty years in prison by the end. Things escalated even more when the spy plane of pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) was shot down over Soviet air space, and Powers was detained. This led to Donovan collaborating with the CIA, attempting to negotiate an exchange of individuals with the Soviet Union, as well as secure the release of an American student held by East German police; Tasks all easier said than done.
The thing that may immediately strike most viewers about Bridge of Spies is that it is Spielberg’s most stylistically toned down movie yet. Largely veering away from the sentimentality of many of his most well known films, Spielberg finds himself quickly adapting to a slow-burning and calculated style of tension in line with a spy-thriller. Much of the time, it feels like something out of a John Le Carre novel. Spielberg often hangs back to place more emphasis on the intricacies of the screenwriting, impressively assembled by Matt Charman and the Brothers Coen, Joel and Ethan.
The film is very dialogue driven in the same vein of Spielberg’s previous Lincoln, and has the difficult task of painstakingly relaying information to the audience at breakneck speed. However, at no point does such a thing ever become boring. The screenplay is impressive in that it weaves its way through events and meat and potato facts with surprising entertainment value. The film has a surprising sense of distinctly Coen-esque wit, and manages to wring out a quietly lasting tension and gravity to the proceedings with much finesse.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Spielberg is directing on auto-pilot. Truth be told, the script, as expertly crafted as it is on its own, wouldn’t translate well to the screen were it not for Spielberg’s unmatched craftsmanship and flair. Spielberg’s own attention to detail and technical eye are essential to the film’s quiet suspense. One such example is how Spielberg uses several prominent long takes to let the mood of each scene flow unbroken, always establishing uneasiness and a feeling of paranoia.
This means his sentimentality is often muted, reliably so, but that doesn’t mean that the movie strips Spielberg away of everything that makes him such a distinct and fascinating filmmaker, allowing his warmth to come through in sparse, but well earned punctuation throughout. His way with visual design is impressive as ever, much of which are supplied by the list of his usual collaborators. One who hasn’t collaborated with him, however, is composer Thomas Newman, filling in for John Williams (currently working on the next Star Wars film). This actually makes for a fitting and inspired change in musical pace, as Spielberg often opts for extended stretches with virtually no music, and Newman’s own restrained and deeply emotional stylistics are seamlessly suited to the subdued nature of the film.
Performance-wise, Spielberg gets the very best out of his actors. In his fourth collaboration with the director, Tom Hanks returns as the always reliable everyman he’s become famous for, and armed with an endearing Jimmy Stewart-esque command and screen presence, makes the complex sequences of negotiation consistently rousing and entertaining to watch. But it’s stage actor Mark Rylance as Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel who earns MVP status. Despite the fact that the true shady nature of the character can never be denied, the film never demonizes or simplifies Abel’s character as an easy villain. Much attention is given to how Donovan wants him to be treated as fairly as any American citizen, and the film further establishes this with much empathy and understanding, with Rylance contributing much poignant warmth and wit to the character, making us love the character, and - even if momentarily – making us forget the character’s past nature. Even when he steps aside for most of the film’s second half, he leaves an unforgettable impact on the film even when he’s not in it.
Bridge of Spies gave me everything that I wanted out of the film, and then some. With Spielberg toning down his usual stylistic choices, it’s allowed him the chance to further stretch his versatility with his craft, lacing the screenwriting with effective slow burning build up and tension, and has also allowed for some of the finest acting in his films thus far. I can’t help but be thrilled about everything that he’ll have to offer next, and I look forward to rewatching this one several more times
***** / *****