Russia is back. With the events raging in Syria that remind us of the frustrating and potentially dangerous nature of Putin and his statist ideology of national conservatism, a film like “Bridge of Spies” should have some contemporary relevance. It’s history that bears reviewing.
“Bridge of Spies” is directed by Steven Spielberg who works from a script partially written by Ethan and Joel Coen. The story should be well-known to many of us: A Soviet spy who went by the name Rudolf Ivanovich Adel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in the late 1950s for espionage. An insurance defense attorney named James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is appointed to represent him. Adel is convicted, but Donovan manages to beat the death penalty and secure a prison sentence (that will be served in Atlanta). Meanwhile in 1960 American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down while flying a U-2 spy plane in Soviet airspace. Powers is tried by the Russians and convicted. And, naturally, a prisoner swap is arranged with Donovan acting as the unofficial negotiator.
Both a careful history lesson and gripping spy thriller, “Bridge of Spies” is fascinating entertainment. Of course, it contains many of the Spielberg trappings that may cause some cynics to groan. This film is literally painted expertly with an artist’s brush from top to bottom. Every moment is important and, while cynics might take issue, it is impossible not to give in and enjoy the proceedings. I think that Spielberg’s straight-laced story-telling approach is refreshing these days when filmmakers are constantly pushing structural and technological limits in hopes of capturing the form while the substance is often left lacking.
“Bridge of Spies” is a meaty narrative that is beautifully captured and expertly performed. While much attention will be paid to Hanks in the lead, the breakout here has to be Mark Rylance. The gifted British stage actor has been reticent to take on mainstream movie roles. Here he distinguishes himself by what he doesn’t say as much as anything actually said. Rylance is truly a superb performer and one that captures your imagination namely for his emoting and also, because you’ll find yourself asking who he is. If you were Googling Bernie Sanders after the recent Democrat debate, you may find yourself doing the same with Rylance after seeing “Bridge of Spies.” It’s a special performance that will likely find many awards nominations.
Movies that draw from historical events told through the American lens are often criticized. Last year’s runaway box office smash “American Sniper” was particularly polarizing with filmmaker Michael Moore tweeting that “snipers aren’t heroes.” Others found problems with the arguably jingoistic conclusion of the film that featured a great amount of flag waiving.
Like “Sniper,” “Bridge of Spies” is an unapologetic slice of Americana. And had the film been directed by Ron Howard, who does this sort of thing very well, it might not have had the same amount of impact. Love him or hate him, Spielberg is able, as he showed us with “Lincoln,” to entertain us while pulling at our heart-strings, whether artificially or not. And this makes “Bridge of Spies” subtly transcendent.
Given the global decline in oil prices, Russia, backed into an economic corner, is acting out in the world, showing us they are still militarily significant. This may be giving rise to a new Cold War. Thankfully, with films like “Bridge of Spies” we won’t forget the last one.