Film review: Bridge of Spies (Director: Steven Spielberg)
By Sascha Krieger
It’s Donovan. Jim Donovan. No, not a master spy in Her Majesty’s or anyone else’s service, just an insurance lawyer. A pretty good one, it seems, and a rather skilled negotiator. In 1957, Donovan ends up right in the center of the Cold War when he is asked to defend alleged Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. After convincing the judge to spare Abel’s life in order to have a potential negotiating tool should a U.S. spy be captured by the Soviets, Donovan is requested to do the negotiating when that case materializes following the capture of U.S. Air Force pilot Gary Powers. Donovan succeeds in exchanging not only Powers, but also American student Frederic Pryor, held by East Germany, for Abel in a memorable night on Glienicker Brücke, a bridge on the outskirts of Berlin. Steven Spielberg is now telling this, his, story on the big screen. The story of an ordinary man in extraordinary times. „Aren’t you worried?“, Donovan asks Abel several times. „Would it help“, he replies. A short exchange that pretty well explains the film’s character.
Sure, Spielberg takes his liberty with the true events, shortens the timeline and throws in plenty of rather heavy-handed illustrations of the times, for example when Donovan, riding on a train, witnesses the killing of several East German refugees at the Wall, when Donovan is mugged by a youth gang in seemingly lawless East Berlin or when the construction of the Wall is depicted as a heavily armed mass DIY exercise. At these times, Spielberg goes for the simplistic spectacular as he does when he’s scene jumping between the three stories (Abel/Donovan, Powers, Pryor), trying to merge them into what is an intricate web of power and fear and diplomacy. It feels contrived, with the narrative mechanics not only showing but creaking pretty heavily at times. These are small blemishes on a film that excels exactly when it leaves the big stage.
For at its heart is one man’s story. Tom Hanks plays Donovan as an ordinary lawyer, deeply scrupulous, very skilled but at home in the petty squabbles of insurance law, not in the minefield of a world half expecting a nuclear holocaust at any moment. Faced with this world, Hanks‘ Donovan is confused, struggling to find his way, even a little scared. But he makes his mark doing what he does best: uphold the law, focus on his job, remaining steadfast at what he believes in. This is how he gets Abel’s respect and the judges and this is how he convinces both the Soviets and the East Germans – and, ultimately, even the CIA which only cares for Powers and would sacrifice Pryor willingly. Hanks is the ordinary man bewildered by a world going insane and he gains his little triumphs by refusing to play the game and staying sane. Hanks plays him as a complex, struggling and stubborn individual and avoids all clichés of the little man defeating the big world. With Mark Rylance’s Abel, he also has a brilliant counterpart: a quiet, diminutive, shy man, totally unremarkable , but steadfast in his own way. Where Donovan shows, Abel hides. But there is a principled nature to both that earns their mutual respect. Surrounded by power games and attempts at cheating the other, they, the enemies, find themselves on the same side.
The film’s greatest strength is it light-handed approach to the story, the way it tells it from the point of view of someone who knows about the situation’s seriousness but who also realizes the madness around him. At the center of the storm it’s supposed to be the calmest. Donovan is that center. His is a story of awakening, of finding an inner strength that he never wears as a shield. Spielberg mostly avoids the spectacular, he reduces the story to an intimate, almost private one, aided by Janusz Kaminski’s calm camera and dark imagery that always suggests the black and white and is never superficial. There is a hint of roughness to these images, the polished nature of many films about the period notably absent. While there is also some patina to Kaminski’s frames, they manage to bring the story closer to us that we might expect it to be. Thomas Newman’s piano-heavy music is subtle and unobtrusive and the screenplay infused with a quiet, sly, warm humor in which the hand of the Coen brothers who co-wrote it, is clearly visible. As long as Bridge of Spies remains with his protagonist, as long it tells his very personal story, as long as it narrates a pivotal moment in the Cold War as a tale of a bunch of rather ordinary individuals, it’s a great film: smart, subtle, visually convincing, funny. When it tries to go beyond, it tends to get lost. At twenty minutes shorter, it could have been a masterpiece. as it stands, it’s still quite outstanding.