Film, Reviews

Bridge of Spies review: Spielberg's glossy cloak-and-dagger storybook

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After directing a confederate of top hats in 2012’s Lincoln, Steven Spielberg segues from headwear to spy games in a new Cold War drama starring a trusty pair of hands: enduring all-American nice guy Tom Hanks.
Hanks is for the partial-to-period-drama auteur what Leonardo DiCaprio is to Martin Scorsese. Not just regular collaborator and reliable go-to guy, but an actor whose instincts to some extent reflect the filmmaker’s.
DiCaprio likes to push his characters in, at times,  challenging moral directions, recently confronting audiences with a vile plantation owner in Django Unchained (2012) and a coke-snorting fiend in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The same can be said of Scorsese, who directed the latter — not the sort of film you’d expect from most 71-year-olds, and far from his first un-PC picture.
When was the last time you saw a despicable Tom Hanks character or a Spielberg movie that challenged your moral fibre? That’s not a criticism of either, but it does say something of the synthesis that has developed between their art and their intentions.
Both are in good form in Bridge of Spies, a true story-inspired late ’50s-set cloak and dagger piece with a glossy high-end sheen. It’s international espionage and political horse trading by way of, well, Steven Spielberg.
When we meet James Donovan (Hanks) he’s working in insurance law, though we hear whispers about a past as a hot-shot attorney. When a British national living in New York City is nabbed and accused by the FBI of serious espionage charges, the powers that be go to Donovan for what appears to be a dud gig.
Everybody appears to have already decided the man, Willy Fisher (Mark Rylance), is spying for the Russians but authorities are determined to present the impression of a fair trial. When Donovan says he’s in insurance now, he’s told returning to harder stuff in the legal profession is “like riding a bike”.
Hanks plays a highly principled character (not exactly against type). His  resolve is only strengthened by the cries of vested interests asking him to violate client attorney privilege and the crooked glances of strangers greasing him off on the train. When a CIA agent asks Donovan to cough up information, irrespective of process because “we don’t have a rule book here,” Donovan is quick to retort.
We do have a rule book, he snaps, and it’s called the gosh darn constitution. You can’t hear the violin strings yet, but they’re in the mail. The first moments of swelling score matched to monologue actually involves quiet reflection from Fisher, who remains — a credit to everybody — a nuanced and curiously elusive figure.
What initially appears to be a handsomely packaged court room drama replete with spit-polished dialogue and an obvious through line to contemporary issues goes somewhere more interesting; the case is used for character and plot development rather than an end in itself.
Put that down to screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, working in consort with playwright Matt Charman. Subplots involving a US pilot (Francis Gary Powers) and an economics grad (Will Rogers) initially feel like mysterious add-ons but the story’s architecture comes together superbly.
Bridge of Spies is a Spielberg movie, so production values are top shelf with handsomely burnished images from long-time collaborator and two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski. The director’s formal style rounds out the script’s pointier edges, and when it comes to moral patter the director can’t help himself.
There’s no shaking the sense this is history via storybook. Still, it’s the equivalent of a bulky page turner: slightly overlong but consistently entertaining.

One response to “Bridge of Spies review: Spielberg's glossy cloak-and-dagger storybook

  1. Saw Bridge of Spies last night and heartily recommend this film.
    I remember the news reports at the time but seeing it on the screen in such detail was exceptional.
    I could almost feel the chill of the snow, but maybe the airconditioning in the theatre was turned up a bit!
    The only minor criticism I have is that the timeframe from when Powers was captured and then returned to the USA appeared to be quite short,
    he was actually imprisoned for well over a year.
    Well done Mr Spielberg and everyone associated with this production!

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