Bridge of Spies examines the Cold War through the prism of Tom Hanks’ lawyer, who is controversially defending a suspected Russian spy (sympathetically played by Mark Rylance).
In the striking opening sequence Rylance’s Rudolf Abel is painting a self-portrait. The repetition of his face within the shot – reflection, artistic representation, and reality – is a fitting introduction to the film’s themes of duplicity and inscrutability. No matter how many times we see his face, we still know almost nothing about Abel, even when the credits roll more than two hours later.
This is an intense, talky film, but for the most part that isn’t a problem. With the Coen brothers scripting but not directing, Bridge of Spies showcases their skill with dialogue without the derisive quirkiness that often characterises their directorial outings. A heady pace is established when Hanks’ James is first glimpsed arguing an amusingly specious distinction with a rival lawyer.
The continuous verbal negotiation which dominates the latter half of the film does become a little tedious, though there’s one bravura moment where the steady drama is fantastically interrupted by a welcome yet pleasantly startling bombastic action scene. Throughout the editing is slick and often surprising, making intentionally jarring juxtapositions between, for example, soldiers and schoolchildren.
The screenplay elegantly weaves together far-flung strands of narrative, taking in James and his family, the US air force, and the raising of the Berlin wall. The inclusion of an imprisoned American student, however, feels superfluous, almost a device to allow James to both have his cake and eat it.
Bridge of Spies has great moments, such as a family dinner scene made up of a meticulously choreographed flurry of physical comings and goings, underscored by a complex patchwork of relationship dynamics which play across each other to humorous effect. However, Spielberg’s latest is let down by its rigid pro-American perspective, expressed through heavy-handed parallelism including a motif of Hanks gazing out of train windows; East Germany is bleak and entrapping in stark contrast to the playful freedom of the good ol’ USA.
Despite its technical excellence, Bridge of Spies fails to draw much of an emotional response. Perhaps due to Rylance’s fine performance, it’s Abel, absurdly and likely unintentionally, who provokes the most empathy.