On paper, Steven Spielberg has a real weakness for historical noodling, having set over half a dozen movies in the World War II era and colonized periods earlier (Lincoln; Amistad; War Horse) and later (Munich). Considering his forays into futuristic sci-fi, he’s made only a handful of movies set in the present day, many of them now old enough to feel like period pieces themselves. His new film Bridge of Spies seems particularly prone to fusty reverence for the past, like your dad or uncle who doesn’t read many novels, just biographies and histories.
But burrowing into history, in this case the real-life story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a mild-mannered lawyer who defends accused Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) and winds up traveling to early-60s Berlin to negotiate a prisoner trade, gets Spielberg crackling. Maybe at this point it shouldn’t be a surprise; almost everything gets him crackling, because he’s one of the medium’s most intuitive and electric filmmakers. Back in the 80s, he was sometimes tagged as a boy wonder longing for grown-up respect and lacking the tools to escape his own sentimental crowd-pleasing. In his recent histories, he can’t help himself from the opposite: even when going after something rousing, even when casting Tom Hanks in one of his Tom Hanksiest moral-anchor roles in ages, doubt and moral ambiguities creep into the proceedings.
At first, Donovan seems primed to make a courtroom stand; he takes the Abel case despite public scorn for not just hanging the traitor (who, Hanks patiently explains in a dinner scene, is not a traitor; he’s not an American citizen, and if he is a Russian spy, he’s just doing his job). But the movie’s courtroom scenes are abbreviated, practically nonexistent, which makes sense when Spielberg shows a chambers-set conversation where the judge admonishes Donovan for making more than a cursory effort. He’s expected to make a show of due process on the way to a swift judgment and execution.
He does not comply, and gets embroiled in spy games for his troubles—followed on a rainy night, weathering attacks on his home. These aren’t major set pieces, but Spielberg cooks them beautifully into little mini-Hitchcock episodes, pulsing with life. He uses several prominent low-angle shots here, not to inflate any of the spies into mythic figures, like Michael Bay would, but creating the sensation of running along underfoot, putting the audience both thrillingly and uncomfortably close to the action. There isn’t a lot of action, per se, though the movie’s not quite wordless but very quiet opening sequence, with Rylance tailed from the subway into his shabby home, is terrifically exciting. Instead, the movie operates somewhere between the shadowy intrigue of Munich and the backroom negotiations of Lincoln.
Oddly, it’s the back half of the film, when Hanks hits the ground in Berlin, that’s talkier and a little less exciting than the opening. But the talk is very well-written, with a script contribution from the Coen Brothers, credited alongside Matt Charman. The last Coen for-hire job on a prestige picture was Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, and it hardly registered, beyond the thought that maybe they took it as consolation for never getting to make To the White Sea. Here, the script doesn’t exactly ring with Coenese, but there are certain repetitions and dry witticisms that hint at their involvement. If this is their for-hire mode, it suits them: less stylized than their own films, but crisp, smart, and here attuned to the absurdities of Cold War double-bluffs (the proposal for the trading of spies involves “a lot of fiction,” as Donovan puts it).
So it’s not the lack of intrigue that disappoints at all in the second half but the marked decrease in screen time for Rylance, who gives an even-keeled but magnetic performance as a man willing to accept his fate. It would be too much to say a friendship forms between Donovan and Abel, but they clearly respect each other, and Rylance does wonders with his role; he doesn’t say much, but through his eyes, you can see him thinking. There’s a Coen-ish repetition in what becomes his catchphrase/punchline: “Would it help?” he repeatedly asks Hanks when confronted with his seeming lack of worry or terror. Donovan, taking on Abel’s perpetual sniffle when he catches a cold in Berlin, seems to take this to heart, and Hanks does fine movie-star work in conveying that absorption.
But good as Hanks is, the reason the air never goes out of the movie even when it’s more or less out of surprises is Spielberg, whose craftsmanship is breathtakingly thorough; there’s scarcely a shot in Bridge of Spies that isn’t interesting to look at, and he reveals a rare combination of showmanship and maturity. Spielberg’s not out to reissue the geopolitical despair of Munich (set only a decade or so after this film), but he doesn’t stubbornly cling to uplift, either. What Donovan sees in Berlin lingers with him, and Bridge of Spies, in its procedural and all-American way, lingers too.