It’s tough to be a soldier, especially in a Steven Spielberg movie. The beloved auteur worships the bravery of enlisted men in many of his films, but he pays homage by demonstrating their sacrifices through graphic, uncompromising death scenes. Even Saving Private Ryan, for all its memorializing, is driven by blood-soaked spectacle that makes the melting faces in Raiders of the Lost Ark look tame.
But as the soldiers in Spielberg’s new 1950s-era drama Bridge of Spies are briefed by their superior, the Cold War wasn’t fought with bullets, but with information. It’s also a warning to the audience not to expect firefights or chase scenes; like the Cold War, Spies rewards patience as it observes the stakes of deal making, the heroism of endurance, and the power of words.
Spies follows stubborn insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks, whose dependably pitch-perfect performances often get taken for granted) who’s called upon by the US government to defend a captured Russian spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, who steals the show with his hangdog stoicism). The only problem: the government doesn’t want Donovan to defend him too much. They’re hoping to publicly prosecute him as quickly as possible despite Donovan’s dogged pursuit of a Constitutionally assured fair trial. It’s American morale vs. American morals.
Soon the entire nation resents Donovan, perceiving him as a literal devil’s advocate, while he ironically finds strength for his convictions from his defendant. Abel is unflappable but polite, a man who receives a light for his cigarette and the threat of a death sentence with equal tight-lipped acceptance. Meanwhile, an Ivy League student studying abroad finds himself on the wrong side of the brand-new Berlin Wall and an American pilot gets shot down over the USSR, turning Donovan’s unpopular client into the key for a two-for-one prisoner exchange on the titular bridge—and turning Donovan into a reluctant diplomat tasked with the negotiations.
Those negotiations are the engine of Spies’ drama, set in smoky, beautifully photographed offices on either side of the Iron Curtain. None other than cinema’s favorite cynics, Joel and Ethan Coen, share screenplay credits with relative newcomer Matt Charman. Their signature wordplay and bleak wit pump vital entertainment value into the dialogue, offering a fascinating overlap with Spielberg’s sentimental streak.
Left without the constant threat of death present throughout Munich and his World War films, Spielberg tries to inject tension into Spies with an out-of-place, overly showy spy plane attack and paranoid Kafkaesque sequences in which Donovan struggles to surpass Soviet bureaucracy. Spielberg ultimately commits to making his period piece a straightforward Frank Capra-style morality play about sticking up for your fellow human, with Hanks as his Jimmy Stewart. Spies’ big risk is boring (perhaps even losing) its audience by trusting them to listen and ponder. But by prioritizing deep discussions of human worth over a body count, this may be the Spielberg movie that values human life more than any other. FL