Bridge of Spies opens with a sequence that immediately puts the viewer at ease through its ideas and execution. This is a Steven Spielberg film after all, and there’s something very reassuring about sitting down to a piece of work by a master filmmaker so in control of every cinematic element. The first scene, in which alleged KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) silently paints in his apartment before evading FBI agents through Brooklyn, works as a purely visual opening statement. From the opening shot of Abel looking upon himself in a mirror, reflecting a central theme of identity, everything just feels right, and you know you’re in safe hands.
The story follows the aforementioned Abel and the U.S. Government’s spy exchange with the Soviet Union for American pilot Francis Gary Powers — all of which was lead by lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks).
In the capable hands of Spielberg, Bridge of Spies manages to be a film of both powerful images and powerful words. That may be deemed inevitable given the subject matter, but it’s not an easily executed task. Things are helped along by a fantastic script written by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, which instills a real emotional resonance, particularly in the relationship between Donovan and Abel, as well as a surprising edge of wit — the presence of the Coen’s very much being felt in the graceful humour peppered throughout.
As for that main character relationship, both Hanks and Rylance bring their A game with a pair of inch perfect central performances. Hanks’ usual everyman charm remains, and works so well when combined with Donovan’s unique integrity and other nuanced eccentricities. Rylance is perhaps the true standout here, crafting Abel as he should be — an enigma — whilst keeping him both sympathetic and interesting without ever feeling one-dimensional. It’s an understated but very effective turn, quite rightly being adorned with praise during awards season. These performances work so well together that it’s perhaps no surprise that the only section of the film that seems to lag is the one in which they are separated. However, without giving too much away for those who are yet to experience the film, the climactic sequence — and their relationship — resonates much more as a result, and it becomes clear why Spielberg chose to structure the story in such a way.
What struck me the most about Bridge of Spies is how relevant it is to today. Not just because the story it tells is important, but due to the stance Donovan takes and how important that lesson remains. When Donovan stands up for the constitutional rights of Abel, a non-US citizen, he claims “every person matters”. Much has been made of this point and its relevance to current day issues such as Guantanamo etc., but the truth is that this message is so important right now that it could be applied to any number of ongoing issues around the globe. All of this is done in the guise of a fairly easy to digest story, well told and expertly crafted with fantastic imagery, powerful dialogue and even more powerful human performances. Only cinema can do this.
As for Bridge of Spies and its chances of a Best Picture win at the Oscars, it is highly unlikely. With a bunch of other nominees creating much more buzz, BoS winning would be a huge shock. However, given the strength of the work (something most critics and audiences seem to agree on), it’d be a most welcome surprise.
Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg’s best film in years.