There is plenty to like in Bridge Of Spies. Chief among them are the performances from Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Abel, and Tom Hanks (of course) as Donovan, the lawyer tasked with representing Abel at trial. Their scenes together are magical, highlighting two top actors at their very best. It doesn’t hurt that they are being directed by one of cinema’s greats, either. Mr Spielberg, I doff my cap to you, sir.
I quite liked the (possibly less than) subtle approach to showing Abel and Donovan as both being strangers in a strange land. Before Abel’s arrest in Brooklyn he is seen sniffing and wiping his nose, an allergy of some sorts. Then, when Donovan has to venture off to to Germany, he’s an American not accustomed to the severe cold weather that covers the city.
And you really do feel the cold. The scenes in Berlin are chilly and as far flung from the New York setting as it’s possible to get.
What this amounts to is a spy film without any of the spying. Instead the focus is, quite heavily, on negotiation and the application of those skills in order to get the best outcome for everybody. Much of this falls on Donovan, an unconventional negotiator. He is tasked with getting a downed pilot back in exchange for Abel, however he learns of a young American student (almost a fellow Prior too – a Pryor) who is also being held captive. What follows are his attempts to get both of these men back into American hands.
This is cold war thriller territory, albeit that we see events via the back door. None of the negotiations are made public, and it’s all very hush hush. A necessity for both parties.
The downside is that he’s seen by many as a traitor, all thanks to him defending Abel. As time goes on they develop a friendship, of sorts, with the recurring refrain of Abel asking “Would it help?” offering a touch of lightness to proceedings. It’s needed, because Donovan is vilified for his involvement, later having to conduct negotiations in secret wherever possible.
The horrors of the Cold War are touched upon but not explored in a great amount of detail. That offers the colour, the historical context for the story which is, in essence, a friendship between two men who are stood on separate sides of a political and ideological divide. There are glimpses of the severity on the communist side of the wall, although if Donovan’s accommodation is anything to go by, things are not much better on the American side.
Plus as an added bonus, for me at least, the script was polished by the Coen Brothers. It’s nowhere near as whimsical and off kilter as the films they direct themselves, but there is a sharp edge to much of the dialogue that clearly comes from their pens. Or quills. Or typewriters. That this amount of drama has been extracted from a two character focus is quite remarkable and commendable.