To claim 2015 is the year of the spy film would not be inaccurate. Spring brought us Matthew Vaughn’s kinetic Kingsman: The Secret Service, with the summer providing genre comedy Spy from Paul Feig, the throwback empty charm of Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Christopher McQuarrie’s blockbuster sequel Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. With fall in full swing, we’ve seen the release of Sam Mendes’ second James Bond film, Spectre, and perhaps most intriguingly, Steven Spielberg’s first film since Lincoln, Bridge of Spies. Bridge of Spies seeks to differentiate itself not only through the pedigree that comes with Spielberg and lead actor Tom Hanks, but by approaching the genre from more of a cloak and dagger/back alley dealing sense of a spy film than the explosives and gadgets and hot women that has come to define the rest of these releases this year. Subterfuge through subtlety is the meal of the day.
Hanks plays Jim Donovan, a successful insurance lawyer going about his business supporting a loving wife and children at the onset of the Cold War. His firm is tapped by the government to provide the defense for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and he draws the short straw. With America in the grips of McCarthyist anti-Russian fervor and the government only looking to provide a lip service defense with the illusion of due process, Jim’s commitment to the job as well as his growing respect for the humanity of his client causes problems in both his public and private life, as no one can fathom why he could possibly defend a Soviet spy with any sort of conviction. As the trial ends, Jim expects to return to a life of quiet inconsequence, only to find his role in the saga is not yet over. Before he knows it, he has been shipped off to an East Berlin in the midst of assembling the Berlin Wall in order to lead negotiations for a prisoner exchange between Rudolf and a downed spy pilot (Austin Stowell). Faced with having to please three very different governments while protecting his interests both at home and abroad (complicated by the abduction of an American grad student played by Will Rogers), Jim must to the impossible and get everyone home safely.
Bridge of Spies is very much a tale of two movies. Beginning as a courtroom drama for its first half before morphing into more of a spy thriller for its second, it can be difficult to avoid the temptation of judging it on the relative strengths of its two minds. When taking into consideration that one of the halves is considerably better than the other, this disconnect becomes yet more troublesome. As Jim navigates the thorny maze of a country where innocent until proven guilty has been thrown out the window by a paranoid public and a crusading judge not particularly interested in jurisprudence, he must also come to terms with the humanity of his charge. Jim’s moral quandary is much more engaging in this section of the film prior to being shipped off to Berlin for closed-door negotiations and trenchcoats and fedoras. It’s no wonder; Rudolf is given ten times the characterization of the two nigh faceless Americans Jim is trying to save, and the film begins to lag once Rylance is relegated to the sidelines.
The lifeblood of Bridge of Spies is the team of Rylance and Hanks, two industry stalwarts doing what they do best. We’ve come to expect this sort of performance from Hanks, especially in his collaborations with Spielberg; he is a paragon of virtue, a man who will not heed to the anti-Red mob mentality of the day, a man committed to doing the right thing no matter the cost personally or professionally. Rylance’s character is understandably more distant and mysterious, but while he could have played furtive or cagey, he instead opts to steep Rudolf in quiet dignity. Rudolf is a proud man, more a painter than a spy, never in denial of his actions or culpability for them. He simply wants to see a way through that doesn’t end in the electric chair. The rest of the cast is pockmarked by stalwarts like Domenick Lombardozzi (the perfect heavy), Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Dakin Matthews and Alan Alda (finally beginning to show his age after all these years). It is a strong ensemble indeed, but Hanks and Rylance are incontrovertibly the stars. It is no wonder, then, that the film suffers when it pulls them away from each other.
It almost feels inherently wrong to ding Bridge of Spies for its second half shortcomings. It is never a bad film (save one howler of a piece of dialogue - delivered twice no less - during the climactic scene) and remains incredibly polished and accomplished throughout its 140 minutes. Thomas Newman’s score does get a bit cloying from time to time, but we’ve come to expect this here and there with Spielberg. It’s the cost of doing business. It does seem to be a weakness of the script (from Matt Chapman and Joel and Ethan Coen, which goes a long way to explain how funny the film is) that the section in East Berlin does not resonate as much as the courtroom drama that precedes it, and it is a shame that this approach deprives us of the joy of seeing Mark Rylance on screen for large chunks of the film, but these dalliances do little more than simply keep Bridge of Spies firmly in the good movie camp, holding it back from greatness. Still, this is a breath of fresh air compared to the hollow bombast of the rest of this year’s spy slate, a film that feels cultured and matured like fine wine.