Since Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg has been particularly attracted to the historical drama genre, since then producing Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, War Horse, and Lincoln. Those movies range in quality, from displaying acts of valor and nobility in a profound way (Ryan and Lincoln) to overly embracing Spielberg’s weakness of being cloying and excessively manipulative (War Horse). Yet the veteran director, who has spent over forty years exploring the core concept of heroism whether it be through Indiana Jones or Oskar Schindler, has rarely felt at ease as he does directing Bridge of Spies, which like Lincoln before it is honest without being strikingly gooey and sincere without coming across as unabashedly sentimental.
Bridge of Spies marks Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, after Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal. Hanks may be the perfect embodiment of Spielberg’s idealism of heroism, as the actor is one of the few people who is impossible to dislike no matter the role. In Bridge of Spies, Hanks plays James Donovan, a Brooklyn insurance lawyer assigned to defend English KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is accused of stealing nuclear secrets from the U.S. government and faces a death sentence. Yet soon U-2 spy pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the Soviets, and whose knowledge of American spy craft technology poses a threat to the United States if the Soviets extracted such delicate information. Thus the two governments arrange to exchange each other’s prisoners in East Berlin, with Donovan acting as chief negotiator on the American side, despite holding no official U.S. government position.
Much like TV’s The Americans, Bridge of Spies is built upon the Cold War backdrop and temporal unease than action scenes (though the former is set during the Reagan-era period, whereas Spies takes place in 1957). The majority of Bridge of Spies’ second half focuses on Donovan’s meetings with various Soviet and East German officials about the trade-off of spies, with the icy cold scenery and the development of the Berlin Wall only adding to the frictional tension of the negotiations. Joel and Ethan Coen, who rewrote Matt Charman’s initial screenplay, inject some humor into the meetings, but what really carries the film are the contemporary political overtones. Whereas Lincoln acted as an extended metaphor for the Affordable Care Act, Bridge of Spies appears to the Iran Deal (though the film’s production timing makes this connection purely coincidental), with Donovan serving as a representation of John Kerry. Indeed Donovan’s frequent quarreling with C.I.A. heads about the exchange may serve to embody the current debating over the spearheads of the Iran Deal by Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this forced connection for Bridge of Spies but regardless the association does seem to exist. Unlike movies such as The King’s Speech or Argo, which at best operated as middlebrow entertainment and at worst reflected the Oscars’ tendency to reward smug crowd pleasers, Bridge of Spies and Lincoln take the past and juxtapose it to the present.
It is also notable that Bridge of Spies marks the second time that John Williams has not composed a score for Spielberg (the previous occurrence was for The Color Purple), as Williams was ill earlier this year and unable to work on the picture. Thomas Newman filled William’s role, and the minimalist score fits Bridge of Spies admirably, not taking away from the film’s content.
Through Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg once again proves himself to be a master of emotions and moods, as the director renown for creating blockbusters movies into pieces with more political connotations. Whatever your stance may be on the Iran Deal, Bridge of Spies is a difficult film to dislike.