The latest collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies is a superb film and already one of my favourites of 2016. It is perhaps more incredible due to the fact that it is based on actual events, depicting one man’s determination to do what is right despite the risks to himself, during a politically dangerous time in the twentieth century.
Set during the height of the Cold War, the film recalls the arrest of a Russian KGB spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), in Brooklyn in 1957 and his subsequent trial. Determined to present the image of a fair process, an insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is chosen by the government to represent him. A man of principle, Donovan is confronted with bias and brick walls as he mounts his defence of a man the whole country wants to see hanged. This clearly causes problems for Donovan (and indeed his family) in how he is perceived by the American public, especially once Donovan’s commitment to justice is viewed as contrary to the mood of the nation.
However, in a plot that perhaps seems as if created for a work of fiction, Donovan’s role in historical events became even more important as, on the downing of an American spy plane by the Soviet Union in 1962, it is he who is entrusted to negotiate an exchange – Abel for the U.S pilot Francis Gary Powers. However, Powers is not the only American prisoner, as the East German police have also recently captured an American economics student Frederic Pryor in Berlin. With no official acknowledged support from his government, Donovan puts himself at great risk to secretly travel to East Berlin (at the time of the building of the Wall), in the company of the CIA, to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers with the Russians. However, being the honourable man that he is, he is also determined to find a way to bring Pryor home too. He has no guarantee he won’t also be captured, as he finds himself in a dangerous and unstable country, as East is cut off from West Berlin.
As is to be expected by a filmmaker of the calibre of Spielberg, this is a film of the highest quality. The screenplay by Marc Charman and the Coen brothers is a tense, thrilling story, which has you on the edge of your seat as Donovan takes ever more risks, negotiating with the Russians and the Germans in order to secure a fair exchange. Having the negotiations in Germany rather than Russia means the films is able to highlight what it was like in Germany following the second world war. I found it incredibly interesting to think about that period of history from the perspective of those living in Berlin and found the scenes in which the Wall is erected, causing desperate panic, especially moving. The film also wonderfully captures the relationship that grows between Abel and Donovan, who come to respect each other’s sense of duty and service the longer they know one another.
The casting is also first class. Tom Hanks is the perfect choice for the principled Donovan and brings a weight and gravitas to the screen in a way that makes the audience truly admire him and feel invested in his journey. You almost hold your breath as he makes his way shivering through the snowy streets of East Berlin. His chemistry with Rylance is also crucial, as it is their relationship as Donovan and Abel that sets the tone for the rest of the film. Donovan may have only been assigned to the case initially, but Hanks is able to convey how he quickly grows to like and respect Abel as a man.
As a huge admirer of Mark Rylance for a number of years through his superb stage career, it is wonderful to see his talents recognised by a wider audience (and indeed he has been nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar this year). He is excellent as Abel, bringing out the sense of humour and even kindness in a man who many at the time saw as evil. It is also an understated performance of a quiet man, which is perfect for Rylance, who can convey so much through so little. The film in fact begins with us following Abel going about a relatively quiet existence. You can see how he has managed to be a successful spy for so long – simply blending in with his surroundings and not drawing attention to himself. However, it is a relatively small role, which only makes me wonder at what would happen if filmgoers were to see him show just how much he is capable of as an actor in a larger part.
I’m thrilled to see Bridge of Spies nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. It certainly deserves the recognition, although I doubt it will win. We are all so used to Spielberg (and now even Spielberg and Hanks together) producing films of this quality that I suspect this expectation will work against it in terms of awards success. That aside, Bridge of Spies remains one of the most intelligent, thrilling, absorbing and deeply interesting and emotive stories I have seen in a long time. I felt uplifted by the end, as through this inspiring man, I was reminded of what we could all be capable of if we have the courage and the belief in ourselves to do what is right. Whether you still catch it at the cinema or see it on DVD, I cannot recommend this film enough.
Bridge of Spies is still showing at certain UK cinemas and will be released on DVD on 28th March 2016. Watch the trailer here.