IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 141 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In 1957 Brooklyn, New York, Rudolf Abel retrieves a secret message from a park bench and reads it just before FBI agents burst into his rented room. He prevents discovery of the message, but other evidence in the room leads to his arrest and prosecution as a Soviet spy. James B. Donovan, a lawyer who specialises in insurance settlements, is asked by his partners to take on Abel’s defense. Despite Abel refusing to cooperate with the US, Donovan takes the case, but this makes him hugely unpopular until he’s recruited by the FBI to negotiate an exchange – Abel for Francis G. Powers, a CIA pilot who was arrested alive after his plane was shot down by the Soviet Union during a mission….
I can’t help feeling that Steven Spielberg’s concentration on true stories rather limits his filmmaking these days, while I also feel that the dreary, oh so worthy but dumbed down Lincoln was one of his low points as a director. Bridge Of Spies, based on a story that was almost filmed in 1965 with Gergory Peck and Alec Guinness, is considerably better though, lacking much of the quirkiness you would expect from a film co-scripted by the Coen Brothers, but thoroughly absorbing adult entertainment nonetheless. Yes, much of it does consist of conversations in dark rooms, the story is paced casually, and the sole ‘action’ highlights are a splendid film noir-ish stalking in the rain and a plane being shot out of the sky, the latter featuring very dodgy CGI effects, but this doesn’t mean that the picture isn’t quietly gripping. Spielberg adopts a calm, grounded tone, and possibly takes a bit too long sending its hero on his mission, but the tension is definitely present throughout and makes many of the dialogue sequences [which are still sparked up a bit by the Coen’s distinctive writing] where Donovan is trying to set up the exchange, something he makes complicated by his desire to exchange two hostages for one, thoroughly riveting. In many ways this film is closest to something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in its feel and style, though without the labyrinthine plotting.
Hanks seems to be partly channelling James Stewart in his performance, but he’s still working somewhere near his best, helping to make Donovan a more rounded hero than the script provides, full of all-American integrity but a man whose only real talent lies in his ability to talk people round, and a man wants to get his mission over with quickly so he can go home and go to bed. Mark Rylance also shines as the slightly enigmatic – though we know he’s guilty of espionage right from the offset – Abel [who really is straight out of a John LeCarre story] whose dry wit gets him through his traumatic ordeal, the script taking care to add plenty of little bits of humour here and there. Janusz Kaminski photographs much of the proceedings in a cold and even drab way [lots of blue and grey] despite lots of light streaming in to dark interiors, while the portrait of a snowy, war-ravaged Germany is highly convincing, but Bridge Of Spies nonetheless can’t resist giving us a bit of corn here and there which jars somewhat with the overall tone of the piece, and as usual with Spielberg it could have ended a few minutes before it actually does. Thomas Newman’s score sounds much like Spielberg’s usual composer John Williams in places, which is surely no coincidence. Bridge Of Spies is definitely a film which is rather too low key for many, and could definitely have done with having 15 or so minutes shaved off it, but I was quietly riveted. Yes, the climax could have been made a lot more exciting, but that’s obviously not what Spielberg was going for, and I still couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.