Is there another filmmaker quite like Steven Spielberg, where something painfully tacky is largely forgivable because it feels sincere, where even blunt, icky American patriotism can be taken as nothing worse than a paean to more innocent times (even if times were never innocent)? Nearly everything wrong with a good number of the serious Spielberg films is forgivable in some way or another. Saving Private Ryan is a very pro-war film (the focus on the horrors of war is there only to increase the sense of the heroic sacrifice made), but it is a very well made film and its nastier view of WWII, so often sentimentalised, is genuinely powerful. Lincoln is a talky film about the political process and virtually ignores all contributions towards the abolition of slavery by African-Americans and it is hopelessly patriotic and sentimental at others – particularly the beginning and the ending – yet it is thoroughly compelling. Bridge of Spies is a film you can pick apart, but it keeps you largely on-side while it plays out.
The film begins with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, clearly told to do Wolf Hall again), who is charged with being a Soviet spy. In an effort to make the American legal process look fair, insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is hired to defend him before he is found guilty and killed. Donovan, almost despite himself, keeps Abel out of death row and they both become key players in a significant spy exchange between East and West Berlin.
Bridge of Spies works because it is a very well made film with a very well told story. It is a very classically told film, slow and reflective with well-rounded characters and a clear series of oppositions. Hanks gives a great performance, doing his normal everyman shtick with an element of tongue in cheek, near improvisatory glee. Rylance and Scott Shepherd, as Donovan’s CIA minder, have less to do, but stand out anyway. The rest of the cast is largely filled with less well known people (Alan Alda and Amy Ryan have tiny roles, too tiny in Ryan’s case), most of whom make a great impression. The film is well paced and holds your attention throughout, even when the story rambles between Abel’s trial and the introduction of Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 spy-plane in the middle section. The script is good, keeping the themes clear and interesting, and with enough humour to keep it reasonably funny throughout (the Coens doctored the script, but to pinpoint the best bits and suggest that they are their lines would be a disservice to Matt Charman and probably inaccurate given their invisible work in the awful Unbroken). One initially tacky early spiel about what makes Donovan and Hoffman (Irish and German respectively) American is saved by some nice anti-CIA ribbing.
Indeed, the film is somewhat ambiguous about where it stands on the Cold War. The film is clearly opposed to the Soviet Union – at one point, even using an ‘evil empire’ score that sounds like something written for Star Wars, at another, the public trial for espionage of Francis Gary Powers looks very Nazi. The Soviet and East Berlin negotiators are also clearly much more taciturn and untrustworthy than the American counterparts, and there is little talk of America’s aggression against the Soviet Union even as far as the U-2 spy-plane. That said, America does not come across as entirely virtuous. There is an element of mob rule about the reactions to Donovan defending Abel, saving Abel from the death penalty and their newfound fondness for Donovan after the spy exchange. The CIA are represented as sinister and a tad useless and their eagerness to abandon a second American prisoner in East Berlin, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), is clear. As with Lincoln, it is the ending that really lets Bridge of Spies down, with an overlong and painfully sentimental return to America, family and esteem for Donovan that is too self-congratulatory and twee. Depending on your sensibilities, this ending will be unforgivable, destroying all that came before, or it can be taken and, well, left.
However, the film, despite the patriotic presumptions barely offset by some few Cold War ambiguities, works. It is funny and likable and it looks fantastic. Early shots of Abel in his painting studio/ apartment/ headquarters are so well controlled and composed that they look instinctual, not intellectual. Even if the film’s story and characters hadn’t been as compelling as they were, the film would have remained watchable. One moment of a shooting at the Berlin Wall is genuinely shocking in its brutality and the final exchange on the bridge itself is remarkable.
It is possible to enjoy a film that one might disagree with totally, politically speaking, and yet still like it for other reasons. Bridge of Spies is a fantastic example of modern classical filmmaking, more sincere even than Carol, whose ‘50s aesthetics are lauded while those of Spies were met with rolled eyes. A real success for Hollywood, then, and worth celebrating because there hasn’t been one of those since, well, Lincoln.