Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg reteam for "Bridge of Spies", the tale of an unassuming tax lawyer from New York who agrees to handle the unofficial negotiations leading to a prisoner exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
James Donovan (Hanks) is recruited to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, "Wolf Hall"), a spy captured in New York in the late 50s. Donovan is a little surprised - basically a tax attorney he has little experience with criminal trials - but he agrees because everybody deserves a proper defense. As the case goes on, and the publicity increases, his family receives threats, causing his wife, Mary (Amy Ryan) to have second thoughts about whether James should be working on the case at all. Meanwhile, the US begins a project to send spy planes over the Soviet Union, recruiting pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell, "Whiplash", "Dolphin Tale"), to fly one of the first missions. He is quickly shot down and taken prisoner. Donovan learns the Soviets might be interested in trading Abel for Powers, but it has to be negotiated unofficially in East Berlin. To complicate matters, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student, gets caught behind the Berlin Wall and arrested. Donovan wants to negotiate for both men, but the US government insists Powers, with his knowledge of military planes and missions, is the target. But Donovan insists on bringing both men home to the United States.
"Bridge of Spies" is Spielberg at his most simple. We see everything happen as it probably did happen, the characters don't digress into emotional histrionics, there aren't a lot of obvious special effects, the music doesn't swell up throughout to key you to the emotions you should be feeling. Spielberg is simply letting the story unfold in a more natural way, using the performance of Hanks to accentuate the key details. It takes a moment or two to get used to, but once this happens, you begin to appreciate this and just let the story unfold, enjoying the inherent drama and suspense.
That is not to say that Spielberg doesn't put a lot of craft into this film. As a period piece, everything about this film is fabricated in some way - he can't simply tell this story on the streets of New York and expect us to ignore the modern cars. The attention to detail is impeccable - you never once forget that you are watching a story set in the late 50s and early 60s. The one nod to a stylistic flourish seems to be that anytime there is a bright window in a shot, the light from outside seems to glow and infuse the entire scene, making parts of the shot hard to see. This infuses the story with a lyrical, romantic quality, which may seem a little strange, but it works and gives the film a slightly burnished look. It almost looks like a film made during this period.
"Bridge" is also a bit slower paced. One story unfolds, giving you time and space to be with that narrative, to get used to it. Then, when one of the other story lines begins, we move there and that bit unfolds until we get to another place in the chronology and move to another of the story threads. No intercutting, no flashforwards or flashbacks, nothing tricky in the narrative that might call attention to the fact this is a film, being directed by someone like Spielberg. Again, refreshing that someone as revered as Spielberg has the maturity and ability to just let the story unfold.
Strangely, this ability to let everything unfold at a slower, more natural pace also creates more suspense. Because we aren't so hyped up by the rest of the film, when an actual tense moment does happen, it is much more effective.
Thankfully, the score for this film was created by Thomas Newman ("Saving Mr. Banks", "Skyfall", "Spectre"). There are many scenes with no music at all, allowing the audience to feel the emotion they want to feel, not something cued by swelling music. Often, Spielberg uses a well-respected composer to work on his films, someone who blankets music throughout, leaving nary a moment of silence. But they were unavailable, leading him to work with this new collaborator. I think he should continue to work with Newman.
A lot of the success of the narrative of "Bridge of Spies" lies with the work of the screenwriters. Written by Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen (the writers and directors of "Fargo", "No Country For Old Men"), they lay the groundwork for the story's more relaxed narrative. Also, the characters populate the story, doing what they have to do to keep the narrative moving. If they are no longer a part of the story, they move on. Some return much later when they are called upon again. These are all decsions made initially by the writers. In Hollywood, punctuation and words like 'and' in the credits usually are quite significant. I will guess that Matt Charman ("Suite Francaise") wrote the original screenplay and the Coen Brothers were brought in to do a polish, giving some of the characters or parts of the narrative a little rewrite. That said, their work seems pretty seamless and helps to create compelling characters and an engrossing story.
This is really Tom Hanks' film. He is front and center as James Donovan, the tax attorney who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two kids. Initially reluctant to get involved in a case that no one could win, his sense of commitment takes over and he follows the case through to it's end. Then, when the two Americans are captured, he is determined to win the release of both despite the constant remonstrations from the government officials that Powers is the real target, not the student. He continues to work his way through various bureaucratic circles as he works towards a resolution.
Hanks portrays Donovan as quiet, respectful, slightly annoyed. It is not a performance filled with big monologues - except when Donovan addresses the Supreme Court (there had to be one, I guess) - and big emotion. You get the sense that Donovan isn't that guy and Hanks sticks to this throughout.
Mark Rylance plays Abel. I haven't seen Rylance in a lot of other work. A British actor with a reputation for some amazing stage work, he is slowly making his way into film and television roles. As Abel, he seems perfectly matched to Donovan. They are really the same man, but from different parts of the world and their temperaments match perfectly. As they meet and talk with each other, you can see respect build between them, a respect that transcends the fear and histrionics of many others in the society and government are experiencing.
Amy Ryan is also very good as Mary, Donovan's wife. Quiet and supportive, you can see why their relationship has lasted for many, many years.
And throughout the cast, many other recognizable actors pop up in smaller roles, giving their sometimes quick moments giving the story a sense of gravity and believability. Alan Alda plays the senior partner at Donovan's firm, Jesse Plemons (TV's "Breaking Bad" and "Fargo") plays Powers mission training partner. And there are many others. Usually, this type of thing can be distracting - oooh, look who it is - but in "Bridge", these appearances help create a richer tapestry.
All in all, "Bridge of Spies" is a very watchable, very interesting view of a significant piece of history. You would expect nothing less from Spielberg and Hanks.
But because everything is sort of low key, all the time, it makes us feel like we are watching a docu-drama. It's difficult to explain, but because of this - which is the same reason I liked the film - you always feel like you are watching something, you don't really fully connect with the story and this makes this a very good film. Not a great film.