Bridge of Spies is a movie that strikes you as a real meat and potatoes kind of movie movie, if you know what I mean. It’s an old-fashioned, well lit, well shot, well acted story of an American hero given to you straight down the middle, but the novelty here is that it’s a story most people are probably very unfamiliar with. This is a history lesson from an obscure chapter of the Cold War, and a movie about American ideals and values, very much the kind of film that somebody like Frank Capra would have made with Jimmy Stewart, and any student of movie history can see the comparison here with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.
Hanks is starring in a Spielberg vehicle for the fourth time, and is once again playing a patriot like his all American WWII hero in Saving Private Ryan, but here he’s James Donovan, a lawyer who was hired to defend a Russian spy convicted of espionage in 1957. Mark Rylance plays the spy, actually not a Russian himself but working for the Soviet Union, and no one in the country thinks he deserves a fair trial of any kind, simply a “show” one, to uphold the pretend values that America supposedly stands for. Hanks of course is the idealist, although he doesn’t play an incredibly fiery one, just kind of a calm and reasonable one, the kind of aw-shucks performance from a guy that of course just wants to do his actual job and give Rylance a defense- especially when there is one, plainly sitting right there in the Constitution.
This first part of the movie can’t help but speak to today’s political climate in a strange parallel- we seem to constantly be dealing with whether we should actually uphold our constitutional values of civil liberties when it comes to national defense, and this issue has never really gone away, has it? We like to put on a good show, since we wrote a Constitution that was so righteous about sticking up for the liberties and rights of every person, even convicted non-American citizens under our laws, but how many times do we skirt the issue when it’s inconvenient for us? It’s refreshing to see common sense defended by Tom Hanks in that very old school, Jimmy Stewart decency kind of way, but the movie improves even more once we get past that first act, when Rylance is of course convicted, and his sentence ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court.
It’s in this last third or so that Hanks is suddenly called to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange when two Americans are captured, one by the Soviet Union and another by the newly formed Democratic Republic of East Germany. Hanks, as a private citizen, is sent kinda sorta on on the government’s behalf to negotiate the exchange with the assistance of the CIA, and he must engage in his own, natural instinct based kind of espionage. The negotiations are laborsome and difficult, with Hanks having to deal with the changing faces of the people who are negotiating on behalf of their own governments, some of which are secret KGB operatives in disguise and Stasi agents in the employ of the East Germans, who don’t want to be seen as pawns of the USSR. The recreation of Berlin that portrays a country just as the Wall was literally being built give us some very memorable and haunting images- an era we know won’t come crashing down for thirty years. Spielberg excels at relaying this kind of lived-in, historical period, and this film, which is in the vein of 2012’s Lincoln, does just that for the Cold War, with convincing performances, absorbing ideas on hand, and a compelling true story for audiences (history buffs especially) to sink their teeth into.
I won’t say he stays entirely away from his typical kind of sentimentalism, especially towards the end (oddly, also like Lincoln, this is yet another movie that goes out of its to not end in the obvious and appropriate shot- I have a feeling you’ll know it when you see it), but this is still one of the most restrained, subtle and mature works in his filmography. It’s immensely satisfying to see two old pros giving us a professional, intelligent and absorbing drama the likes the even older pros (Capra, Stewart) would be proud to boast on their own resumes.
* * * 1/2