There is one statement I try to avoid making too often, because somehow, it corrupts my status as a serious cinephile – I don’t really like Steven Spielberg. I think he has made some wonderful films, such as Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. However, I do find him to be overly sentimental as a filmmaker, and for many of his films to be saccharine, plodding films that try so hard to tug at the proverbial heart-strings, and very often are void of any real filmmaking merit, and instead the name “Steven Spielberg” became a brand name, a brand synonymous with accessible, family-friendly, quality films, and nothing more. I know this sounds terrible, for me to be bashing perhaps the finest and most beloved filmmaker of all time, but hear me out – my problem is not that Spielberg is untalented (he is incredibly talented, which is proven by his career’s longevity), but rather that he is far too safe, and that he hardly leaves his comfort zone as a filmmaker. He’s made some fantastic films, and some mediocre ones, but they were all connected by a thread of being safe, accessible films. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I can say that his latest film, Bridge of Spies, does not drift from this mold of being a safe and relatively easy to digest film, but it is so well-made and thrilling, it may be Spielberg’s best film in over a decade.
Now forgive me for gushing here, but other than cinema, my other big passion has always been history, and for some reason, my favorite period of history (or one of them at least) has been the Cold War. A tense conflict between countries, which set the stage for the modern world, with many proxy wars and international conflicts defining the biggest part of the twentieth century. At the center of the Cold War were two countries – the USA and the USSR – each fighting for dominance by spreading their own conflicting ideologies of communism and capitalism into other countries in some form of neo-colonialism of ideologies. One of the most fascinating and often overlooked events during this time (and the one that Bridge of Spies covers) was the exchange of prisoners between the USA and the USSR, where Soviet citizen Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) was exchanged for American fighter pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), both of which have been detained in Germany. The person in charge of ensuring this exchange takes place is James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer who is obligated to defend Abel and later facilitating the exchange between the two superpowers. It is an event I have been fascinated in for many years, and while this film does have some small inaccuracies, it seems to be almost entirely correct in telling the story, which is a credit to Spielberg and the writers, who try and tell this story honestly and without falsifying the facts for pure excitement and dramatic impact.
To get down to business here, I have to say, Steven Spielberg directing a Cold War legal thriller may not be the most exciting idea in the world. Of course the final product will be informative and honest to the real-life events, and a story about an American saving the world once again, but it was not definite that it would be entertaining, or that it would elicit much enthusiasm from the audience. It was a tricky film to make, not because it is volatile subject matter, but rather because how many audiences are going to want to watch this film? Spielberg and the production company needed to have some particular forward thinking in order to ensure the film they were making in pre-production would be the film that audiences would pay to see when it was finally completed and in cinemas. One way they could do so was ensuring that a recognizable and beloved star was in the leading role. There are two films directed by Spielberg in the last decade that I feel can be comparable to Bridge of Spies – Munich from 2005, and War Horse from 2011. Both films had the same problem – they were not about incredibly interesting subjects that would interest audiences beforehand – it doesn’t matter how great your film is, it is only important if your film attracts people to go and see it. Both of these films did not have major stars in them (Eric Bana starred in the failed Hulk film, and Daniel Craig wasn’t yet James Bond), which somehow disadvantaged them. It helps to have a recognizable name in your film, and Spielberg recruited an old friend, the man who starred in three of Spielberg’s best films – Tom Hanks (who previously collaborated with Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal), and once again, Spielberg gives Hanks an amazing role as Donovan, the man who had to overcome much and act as a representative of his country in a very tricky battle of a large, volatile conflict. Hanks embodies the character of Donovan and portrays him as the charismatic, daring man he was, working with the government, but also as a logical person to try and resolve conflict without causing violence.
Hanks gives an absolutely fantastic performance, and he proves to be one of the most reliable actors working today – sure, this role didn’t require him to do anything he doesn’t done before, and he essentially just performed his duty as being a charming and endearing actor to bring a character we should truly care for to life. Under the careful direction of Spielberg, and the dedicated performance of Hanks, James B. Donovan goes from being an admirable figure from history to being one of the most powerful protagonists of the year. Hanks fits the role perfectly, as it demands someone who is a powerful screen presence, but not someone that will be overly heroic – we need to feel the worry and fear that the character himself would be going through. It is better for us to believe that this character would fail, and then be overjoyed when he succeeds, rather than expect him to succeed right from the beginning. Hanks is perfect at playing smart but conflicted characters, and he is absolutely wonderful in the role. I can’t think of an actor better suited for the role than Hanks.
The role of James B. Donovan is certainly a great one, but the one role that I think is the one to beat in a film like this is that of Rudolf Abel, the man put under trial for allegedly being a Soviet spy. The role is absolute gold for any actor, and Spielberg could have easily used his sway to get any actor he wanted, from huge star to dedicated character actor. In a very surprising move, Mark Rylance, a man known almost exclusively for the theatre, was chosen to play the role. I am a huge fan of Rylance, so I did not have a problem with his casting, and his performance was indeed absolutely wonderful. He gives a suitably restrained, quiet performance, but he is absolutely mesmerizing and his role is not at all showy, but rather very calm and collected, which requires an actor with the ability to express emotion through words and composure, hence why Rylance was perfect for the role. He never drifts off into unrealistic territory, and he plays the role of Rudolf Abel absolutely perfectly. He gives one of my favorite performances of the year, without a doubt.
Bridge of Spies is a fantastic film. Spielberg has rarely ever been better. The final exchange scene has to be one of the most beautifully intense and gloriously thrilling scenes of the year, and while Bridge of Spies may not appeal to everyone, it is most certainly a fantastic film, filled with splendid performances from a truly dedicated cast. Hanks is absolutely wonderful, and Rylance is a revelation. It is a magnificent film, and proves that Spielberg has it in him to make an exciting, but also very emotionally resonant film. Definitely one of the best of the year.