Bridge of Spies sees Tom Hanks reunite with director Steven Spielberg in a movie written by Matt Charman (Suite Française), and Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo and so on); a star team to say the least. It tells the true story about insurance attorney James B. Donovan (played by Hanks), who is tasked to defend a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in the midst of the Cold War.
I don’t think it is necessary to paint a picture with words to underline how unpopular Mr. Donovan, or anyone who was even suspected of being affiliated with a Communist Spy™ in the late 50s would be; that’s just a no-no. When the judge reaches the verdict of imprisonment, the American public is outraged and Mr. Donovan and his family becomes the victims of harassment and public hatred. The story continues, as the court case is only one-third of the runtime, and takes us to East-Germany, 1962, when an American U2 pilot has been captured by the Soviets and handed over to the German Democratic Republic. James Donovan is now tasked to broker a prisoner exchange, but things get much more complicated than anyone initially expected – and seeing as this is Cold War Germany, they expected things to be fairly complicated.
It is a story of its time – the political turmoil and nuclear fear of the Cold War always present in the lives of the characters – but its overall themes and ideas about morality, and the question of right and wrong, is still resonant today. Mr. Donovan isn’t naive to the pain this defence will cause both him and his family, but his burning principles does not allow him to shun away the Soviet spy. It’s a question of morals and choice that will always be present in a country that values freedom and equality; just a few years ago attorney, Geir Lippestad, had to feel the burden of this in the post-2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo, Norway. Tom Hanks understands the immense weight of this burden, and plays Mr. Donovan with the sympathy and respect that is required to breath life into such a man. It is, however, Mark Rylance, who steals the show in Bridge of Spies as the Soviet spy, and as a stage actor who turned down Spielberg in 1987’s Empire of the Sun, I truly hope we’ll get to see more of him in the future. I struggle to put his performance into words, but if Tom Hanks understood Mr. Donovan, Mark Rylance knew Rudolf Abel. If Tom Hanks played Mr. Donovan with sympathy and respect, Mark Rylance became Mr. Abel. If Tom Hanks turned in one of his best performances in years with Mr. Donovan, Mark Rylance surpassed it completely as Mr. Abel.
It seems Spielberg knew this early on in the process, as the movie open with a stunning slow-pan of the mirrored reflection of Rylance’s contemplative face as he sits in his Brooklyn studio working on a self-portrait. As someone who has struggled to like Spielberg’s latest directorial outings – albeit able to recognize their impeccable direction, this opening scene put me to ease immediately. It felt much more alive and infused with cinematic joy than Lincoln‘s almost surgical presentation. Luckily, this is true for the entirety of the movies run time – although it feels just a fraction too long towards the end – and it feels great to finally have a new Spielberg movie that can rival his best work.