Bridge of Spies is heaven in the dark, an extraordinarily well-calibrated historical drama from storytellers par excellence, Steven Spielberg, the Cohen Brothers, and young Matt Charman. How Charman, whose credit list is very, very short, ended up joining the Cohen Brothers writing a huge Tom Hanks movie for Spielberg to direct is, I’m sure, an amazing story – but not as amazing as that told in Bridge of Spies.
As an episode in Cold War shenanigans, you’ll have heard this one told as something along the lines of the Francis Gary Powers incident. While Powers is certainly instrumental to the film, the Cohen and Charman screenplay steps aside and views the story through the prism of Russian prisoner Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and his lawyer, then negotiator for his release, James Donovan (Tom Hanks, in what can now definitely be called A Tom Hanks Role). Not only that, they begin their story a step or two back along time’s path, with Abel’s arrest, and we don’t even meet Powers for about a half hour or so. This not only freshens the story for those familiar with the Powers episode, but gives us a deeply resonant character study in Donovan, and clues to his motivations (the simplest and most wonderful perhaps being that he just liked Abel).
Every craft element on display here is superb. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is the most polished and gorgeous old-school shooting you could possibly hope for, Thomas Newman’s gorgeous music is subtly majestic (it’s such a nice change from John Williams, I have to say) and Michael Kahn’s editing is disciplined and precise. The art direction in all departments is staggeringly beautiful. My jaw dropped in one scene just looking at a visa.
Hanks and Rylance are perfect in their parts – Hanks could do this kind of American Hero standing on his head, which is not to deny he does it beautifully – and the supporting cast, particularly Scott Shepherd as CIA man Hoffman, is universally excellent. Even the lone female of any note in this completely “whitemale” story – The Wife, of course – is intricately realised by Amy Ryan.
There is not a lot of suspense or tension in Bridge of Spies – particularly if you know your history – but it is enormously entertaining and ultimately very moving. It’s like a really decent hefty novel, told in full sentences, with proper paragraphs and chapters and perhaps even hardback. In other words, yes, it’s “old-fashioned”, but really really good old-fashioned. A must-see on the big screen.