Stephen Spielberg wears two hats. There’s the backwards baseball cap he wears when he’s directing superior popcorn entertainments like Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park – and sometimes, he reaches into the back of the wardrobe and pulls out a sombre black homburg, which is his hatwear of choice when helming ‘darker’ material like Schindler’s List and Munich. Bridge of Spies is definitely a homburg movie, but in its quiet own way, its as gripping and involving as any of his other films. Spielberg has the uncanny ability to take the most complex story and tell it with effortless style, making it accessible and involving.
It’s 1957 and the ‘Cold War’ between America and Russia is at its height. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) an apparently innocuous amateur artist is arrested on a charge of spying for the USSR. He is, arguably, the most hated man in America. Veteran lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned to defend him, mainly because the law must be observed and despite the fact that even the judge on the case openly declares that Abel should be found guilty. But Donovan is a liberal, who believes implicitly in the American constitution. He fights Abel’s case (unsuccessfully) through the courts and finds himself vilified for doing so – but he does manage to prevent him from going to the electric chair, pointing out that Abel might be a useful bargaining tool in the future.
Sure enough, shortly afterwards, American pilot, Francis Gary Powers is shot down whilst carrying out a spy mission over Russian territory. He’s taken prisoner and the CIA are terrified that he might be persuaded to leak the secrets of the U2 spy plane. A possible exchange of prisoners is mooted and once again, Donovan is recruited to head out to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange…
This is a beautifully made film, that brilliantly invokes the austere look of the era and provides a fresh perspective on the business of espionage. Hanks is perfectly cast as the American everyman, a role that would have been played by James Stewart back in the day, his chunky features emanating absolute integrity. Rylance, meanwhile, as the dry, sardonic Abel gives a masterclass in acting. Together, the two actors strike sparks off each other and they are aided and abetted by a razor sharp script, created by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers.
There’s little to dislike here and plenty to admire. It’s essentially a ‘small’ movie, which tells its story with skill and precision and never puts a foot wrong. As the story moves towards its conclusion, it bills up levels of suspense that will have you twitching in your seat.
Spielberg wears both his hats with equal success but I have to say, I do prefer him in the homburg.