I loves me my Cold War thrillers – The Hunt For Red October (1990), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Thirteen Days (2000)….I also loves me my historical dramas and period pieces. Bridge of Spies is all of those things, and it’s even based on true events.
So it ought to be a great movie – but it’s not quite that, despite the excellence of Tom Hanks and his longtime collaborator, director Steven Spielberg. We’ll get to why in a minute.
The story has a low-key start: a man named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) sits in a lonely apartment painting a self-portrait. But it’s not long before the FBI bursts in to declare him a Soviet spy and cart him off to jail. And that’s the way the movie largely remains: low-key, and verrrrry slow-paced.
Enter Jim Donovan (Hanks):an Everyman lawyer with a steely resolve behind the amiable facade. Begged – compelled, more like – to take on Abel’s case, he quips: “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose.” Hanks just keeps getting better with age, even if he is constantly typecast as the reliable Everyman.
Donovan is the perfect counterpoint to the simple, unassuming, almost dull Abel, a man with a lot more going on beneath that quiet nature. Together, the two of them are the heart and soul of the movie, each delivering exceptional performances. Thankfully, there is no demonization of the Soviet spy, though the American Donovan invariably comes off as the noble man of ideals – especially when everyone else around him can’t understand his sympathy for Abel.
Meanwhile, spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down while on a mission over the USSR. A prisoner exchange with Abel is eventually proposed – and guess which lawyer gets to negotiate it?
As a period piece of the 50s and 60s, it is lovingly shot, suits and fedoras and all. The paranoia of the Cold War, with its fears of atomic destruction and hatred of the communists, is also wonderfully evoked. It’s worth remembering, as my American lecturer once told my class, that a common expression back then was “Better dead than red”.
The Cold War vibe is strongest when Donovan is sent to East Berlin, to witness a chilling sight: the foundations of the Berlin Wall being set, and attempted defectors gunned down while attempting to scale it (historically accurate).
But there are also important links to the present day when a CIA agent warns Donovan, “Don’t go Boy Scout on me. There’s no rule book for this.” It’s never clearer than when a judge tells him that they are engaged in a “battle for civilisation” – how many times has that rhetoric been evoked in the war on terror?
At the end of it all, there is a curious lack of dramatic tension. You feel very much for Donovan’s determination to retain his decency, but you never quite feel for the fates of Powers and Abel. It’s a very well-made, well-directed piece – but it’s never going to get the pulse racing.
Bridge of Spies opens in Singapore today. Tell us what you think of the movie!