Bridge of Spies
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan
We have to consider a theoretical premise to understand the significance of this film. Imagine that at the height of Indo-Pak tension, police catches hold of a Pakistani national living in India who turns out to be a spy. What would be our feelings towards that man or the man who decides to defend him in a court of law?
Now reverse the situation and imagine if Pakistan arrests an Indian on its soil and calls him a spy. Would we see him as a spy or as an Indian? Will our sympathy go out to any of these men? For, at the end of the day, they are just two men doing their duty towards their country and their governments in the cat-and-mouse world of international espionage.
Little simplistic but that is what Bridge of Spies essentially amounts to. The film is set in the ’60s and the USSR-USA Cold War is at its peak. There are no armed combats, and the currency the two countries deal in is information.
Based on a true story, the film brings together director Steven Spielberg and actor Tom Hanks together for the fourth time. Add the Coen Brothers who spit-and-polished the script by Matt Charman and you have a dream team. It is ingredients like these which make for Oscar baits, and, make no mistake, Bridge of Spies is likely to be mentioned in the noms soon.
To come back to the story, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) draws the short straw when it comes to defending Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Wolf Hall’s Mark Rylance). From Donovan’s family to the CIA to even the presiding judge, everyone is sure that Abel is a traitor and should hang for his crimes. The trial is a sham, to distance the ‘American way’ from that of the dictatorial USSR.
Watch the trailer here
Unfortunately, they choose the wrong man for the job. Donovan believes in going by the rule book and, in this case, his rule book is the American Constitution.
He perseveres and he fights as he becomes the second most hated man in America, right behind his client. Even as he meets with hostility everywhere, he forms a friendship with his client. In Rylance’s hands, Abel is a quiet, unprepossessing man who I doing his duty with complete honesty. So compelling is the actor’s performance that you actually see the human face of the spy and respect him for it. His silences speak volumes, his inscrutable demeanour is based on his principles.
Even as America is dealing with the Russian spy, one of its own is shot down over Russian territory. U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (a stolid Austin Stowell) is detained by the Russians and is now to be exchanged for Abel. As the film enters the John le Carre territory, Donovan is tasked with negotiating the exchange in a dangerous East Germany, where the Berlin wall has just been constructed.
The film is based on an incisive script and Spielberg gets solid performances from his lead and supporting cast. More like the director’s Lincoln in its approach, the film is one of his good, but not best, works.
Hanks has played such Everyman characters before but he still brings a solid integrity and a fresh approach and energy to Donovan. To say that he is outperformed by Rylance is a compliment to both.
The film is an interesting parable of what happens when patriotism and integrity collide. The questions are as relevant today as they were half a century ago. Even the last scene, while celebrating the American way of life and contrasting it with the stark East Germany images we have just seen, leaves us with a sour note. And in the process, gives us something to think about.
The author tweets @JSB17