Bridge of Spies

2015-11-06 07:47

What it's about:

At the height of the cold war, American insurance lawyer, James Donovan, is called on to represent Rudolf Abel, a British man accused of being a Soviet spy. What starts off as a civic duty soon becomes something far greater, however, as Donovan and Abel's lives intertwine in a way that places both of their lives in danger. Based on a true story.

What we thought:

In a way, I needn't really say much more about Bridge of Spies than that is directed by Steven Spielberg, co-written (based on an original script by newcomer Matt Charman, adapting Donovan's own writings) by the Coen Brothers and starring Tom Hanks. It's a frankly astonishing selection of talent and even if Bridge of Spies is not exactly the greatest film ever made, you probably don't need me to tell you that it is very good indeed.

And yet, there is still plenty that's surprising about it. For a start, I highly suggest against reading too much about what the film's actually about as going in blind means that I never really knew where it was going. What starts off looking for all the world like a Cold-War-era courtroom drama soon becomes something much more unexpected and much more intriguing but that really is all you should know going in – which is why I intend to continue being as vague as possible in terms of the plot in this review.

What's also (very pleasantly) surprising, though, is that Bridge of Spies has a script by the Coen Brothers that doesn't really feel very Coensy but is excellent nonetheless. Contrast that to other recent Coens scripts that have been directed by other people like Angelina Jolie's decent but faceless Unbroken or Michael Hoffman's bitterly disappointing Gambit to see just how badly a Coen's script can go wrong in the hands of someone else. Here though, while Bridge of Spies is very much a Steven Spielberg movie, it's one that happens to have an exceptional script at its core: one that balances deft plotting, strong characterisation and razor-sharp, witty dialogue to impressive and humbling effect.

This is pretty much Spielberg in “serious” mode and though I would love to see him get back to the big budget Hollywood blockbusters on which he made his name, as very few people do those better (see: E.T, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, Minority Report etc, etc.), Bridge of Spies reminds us, once again, just how good he is at weaving a compelling historical narrative into gripping entertainment. He is aided tremendously by the aforementioned killer script and some beautiful, if often chilly, cinematography by long-time collaborator Janusz Kaminski but this is still a masterclass in unfussy, brilliantly controlled direction that is also effortlessly cinematic and eye-catching.

Keeping with the surprises, though Tom Hanks is the star of the film and he is as thoroughly wonderful as ever, the real standout performance here is by British actor, Mark Rylance, who is, very simply, brilliant as Rudolf Abel, a likable and highly honourable spy that also happens to be the most Coensy thing in the film. This is a film where it's always difficult to tell the good guys from bad – Hanks' Donovan aside, of course – so Rylance's subtle, nuanced and humane portrayal of someone who is, in theory at least, “American Enemy #1”, is crucial to the film's success. That he's backed by the likes of Hanks, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda and Sebastian Koch doesn't exactly hurt either.

Admittedly, Bridge of Spies is perhaps slightly less special than it really should be considering the talent involved, but it is, nonetheless, a beautifully conceived, written, directed and performed spy-thriller-drama that is every bit as easy to like as it is to admire. And, yes, the old Spielbergian sentimentality is on full display here – and I, for one, couldn't be happier.

And, incidentally, it is worth noting that though this is the first Spielberg film not be scored by the legendary John Williams (he was busy with this obscure JJ Abrams film at the time that's supposed to be coming out in the middle of next month), Thomas Newman does a pretty great job filling in with one of the year's better scores.

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