Review: Bridge of Spies – A hot-blooded Cold War thriller

Written (at least in part) by the Coen Brothers, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, I was sold on Bridge of Spies a long time ago. It boasted a deep storyline, littered with many powerful themes in the areas of human rights, political correctness and the importance of any and all human life, no matter their heritage, ethnicity or hierarchical standing in society. It was shaping up to be a class act. Yet somehow, I still left the theatre feeling a little deflated.

That’s not to say for a moment this film isn’t worth seeing. It gives a deep insight into the political paranoia that was rife during the 1960s, and the tension and instability that surrounded the Cold War, and does this by following the actions of Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan is an insurance lawyer. We meet him trying to argue a fairly seedy case, where someone ‘insured by his client’ has seemingly caused an accident injuring five motorcyclists – yet Donovan calmly argues his way out, showing us his clear talent for sweet talking. It’s in his subsequent, and rather sudden, change of tone when presented with the case to defend suspected Russian Spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) that we see his humanitarian side, as Donovan launches into multiple impassioned speeches in defence of this ‘traitor’, much to the disapproval of the American public.

Bridge of Spies, as you might expect, exhibits many typically patriotic elements, repeatedly shovelling in various quotes from the Constitution and making reverential reference to elements of the United States’ almost holy – at least in the eyes of these characters and filmmakers – foundations. This is consistently interjected with Thomas Newman’s score that seems to have borrowed heavily from the likes of Apollo 13 and Lincoln. Although this does ground the film in the patriotism of the times, with the constant threat of the Soviets and the national solidarity shown for the United States, it does feel slightly contrived and forced in some areas.

Structurally, it’s remarkably episodic, with some very defined and contained sections that appear to encompass specific aspects of the story: the first takes us through the legal defence of Abel; the second jumps onto negotiations with the Soviets; the final, climactic section focusses on the exchange on the bridge, which the film builds up to throughout. It’s largely successful, although there are some particularly jerky switches between the storylines of Donovan and Abel in the US and Francis Gary Powers (a captured American pilot) in the USSR, which feel very awkward in some places and pull you out of the action slightly.

Despite these shortcomings, Bridge of Spies is in all a very tidy piece of art. It is extremely well acted by the starring members of the cast (be sure to look out for Rylance in the Supporting Actor category for the Oscars), and well written and directed. It’s certainly a recommended watch, and touches sympathetically on some themes that still resonate today.

Matt Bolland

Image: DreamWorks

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