Review: Bridge of Spies


DIR: Steven Spielberg • WRI: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Matt Charman Pro: Christoph Fisser, Steven Spielberg, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Marc Platt• DOP: Janusz Kaminski • ED: Michael Kahn • MUS: Thomas Newman • CAST: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan

When a film is directed by Steven Spielberg, stars Tom Hanks and is written in part by the Coen Brothers, you’d expect it at least to be solid. Maybe you go into the cinema with the expectation that none will hit the heights they hit during their peaks but you know you won’t be disappointed.

But the new drama, Bridge of Spies, is better than just decent. It enthrals and it moves you. It is one of the best films of the year so far, if not the best, and can stand beside anything these great filmmakers have done.

The drama is based around real-life events and Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a lawyer given the unenviable task of defending a Soviet spy caught plying his trade in America in the 1950s. Donovan’s colleagues in the US justice system pat him on the back and make a merry dance of showing how everyone in the USA gets a fair trial. But it is merely a formality to them and they are as bloodthirsty as anyone else in the country. However, it is no pretence to Donovan and he takes the job of defending his client very seriously. A bit too seriously for many people’s liking.

When you see the posters and the trailer for the film you’re promised nail-biting drama. It is packed full of gripping scenes but it is also a touching, moving, sweet and funny film in ways. And that’s a hard thing to get away with when you’re making a Cold War drama.

But they pull it off. It is both sad and uplifting but never melodramatic or sentimental. These guys are master storytellers and they’ve created another wonderful film. Hanks is sharp, convincing and funny. The writing is superb. And Spielberg is at his best. The first scene is a walking chase through New York and is directorial brilliance. It’s a joy to watch and will suck anyone into the film, even those reluctantly dragged to the cinema.

The first half is occupied with the Donovan’s defence of the spy, Rudolf Abel, played fantastically by Mark Rylance. It shows their relationship and its effects on the lawyer and his family. In the second half he goes to Berlin to negotiate a prisoner swap between the US and USSR.

Donovan is not content with just getting what his government wants. He also doesn’t stop until he’s gotten what he feels he can from the situation. In real life, Donovan was no different, after the swap in Berlin he was asked by John F. Kennedy to go to Cuba to negotiate the release of 1,000 prisoners. Donovan got 9,000.

Sometimes great acting lives in showing intense emotion on screen but Mark Rylance puts in a great performance without ever getting angry or emotional. His expression barely changes throughout the film, even as he faces the possibility of a death sentence. The actor has made his career on the stage rather than the screen but his quite performance makes his character endearing.

The film is really two stories ­– the defence and the prisoner swap. That could’ve made for a severed storyline but the two are blended so well together it doesn’t matter. The writing plays a huge part in this as it weaves recurring and connecting pieces of dialogue and images throughout the film.

It’s still not clear who’ll win Oscars early next year. The bookmaker Paddy Power so far has Bridge of Spies as an outsider but if Spielberg and Hanks pick up more awards for their collections, nobody will be able to rightly begrudge them.

Colm Quinn

141 minutes (See IFCO for details)

Bridge of Spies is released 27th November 2015

Bridge of Spies – Official Website