WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
It’s 1957 and the Cold War was about as cold as it could be. New York lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is busy trying to negotiate a lower insurance payout for one of his clients, unaware that elsewhere in town, a suspected Russian spy, British-born Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), is being detained by the authorities.
Jim learns about the arrest when his senior partner (Alan Alda) tells him that the firm has chosen him to defend Abel against charges of espionage. Private meetings with the judge make it clear to Jim that he doesn’t have a hope in hell of getting Abel off, but when it comes to sentencing, he believes he can, at least, spare him from the death penalty. Keeping Abel alive, he argues, could make him a useful bargaining chip in the future.
Sure enough, it’s not too long before a young US Air Force Pilot, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell), is captured by the Russians.
America wants its man back and having sent Abel to jail rather than death row, the possibility arises for a swap. But the authorities themselves can’t be seen to be bargaining with the Russians, so a mediator needs to be found.
The CIA decides that a man who can negotiate down insurance payments, who’s developed a relationship of mutual respect with America’s key asset, is the ideal choice. But to the Agency’s frustration, as he grows in confidence on the international stage, Jim decides he he’s going to play by his own rules.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks? What’s not to like?
Bridge of Spies has neither the gravitas nor the sheer thrills of many of Spielberg’s earlier works, but it’s no less compelling or expertly realised.
From the unexpectedly light script to the comfortable confidence of both its director and star, you feel, from the start, that you’re in safe hands. Mark Rylance gives a delightfully underplayed performance as the spy at the centre of the story.
In a world of whiz-bang spy films, bursting with action, fights, car chases and explosions, this quiet, thoughtful and assured drama stands out as an antidote to Bond; it’s a spy film without much spying but with plenty of talking, or more accurately, behind-the-scenes negotiating. That’s what a lawyers are good at and Jim Donovan was clearly a good lawyer. And it’s a pleasure to watch him go off on his own when he decides he has a better idea than the CIA about what’s best for his country.
One particularly interesting idea that is rarely considered on the big screen is Donovan’s notion that an enemy spy who refuses to co-operate with the authorities is far more honourable a character than an American who sings when his enemies lay on the pressure. His attitude certainly makes you question who really deserves your sympathy.
Bridge of Spies provides an insight into the machinations of the intelligence services, hinting at tensions between the Russians and the East Germans, and highlights how at the negotiating level, even at the height of the Cold War, it was largely polite, friendly and calm in the eye of the storm.
But the calmness belies the paranoia that would have existed at the time – something which seems to be missing here. And although it’s more about the backroom deals than the waging of war, knowing a little more about what Abel was supposedly up to and how much of a threat he was posing to the US might have added something to the drama or tension.
While it’s a perfectly enjoyable telling of an interesting enough story, and feels almost like an American Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, with words being the weapon of war, rather too many ill-defined supporting characters muddy the waters and there are times where – as, perhaps, you’d expect from a spy film – the true motives of characters are hidden or things start to feel somewhat repetitive. It’s also a weakness that while we care about what Jim Donovan is doing, we don’t really care about many of those he’s doing it for – except, perhaps, the enemy.