Bridge of Spies is Steven Spielberg at his most provocative – but that message comes with the typical schmaltz, says MacDara Conroy
“Inspired by true events,” go the opening titles of Steven Spielberg’s latest historical drama Bridge of Spies. That’s the biggest get-out clause in Hollywood, that is – to cast your film as a depiction of ‘what really happened’ while giving yourself plenty of room to fudge every detail. Which of course makes the story at hand all the more difficult to swallow. Did lawyer James B Donovan really face death threats for his defence of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel? Was he a mere insurance lawyer railroaded into taking a case no one else would touch with a barge pole? Did he really get sent in alone to broker a prisoner swap with the Russians, using Abel as a bargaining chip to secure the return of two Americans caught behind enemy lines at the height of the Cold War?
With the requisite pinch of salt taken, whether any of that’s true or not isn’t actually important; safe to assume it’s mostly horseshit daubed on a wattle wall of the truth, so let’s get on with the story. And we’re in familiar Spielberg territory here, with Tom Hanks as the law-talkin’ guy entrusted with an impossible mission against the odds. Almost to spite his boss (Alan Alda) for lumping him with the scarlet-letter gig of representing accused spy Abel (Mark Rylance) – the worst thing that could happen in the ‘Red Scare’ era – Hanks’ Donovan takes a shine to his softly spoken client (with a Scottish accent, not the Geordie vernacular he should have) and bristles against the all-to-easy readiness of his legal fraternity to show-trial his charge all the way to the chair, so long as he’s ‘seen’ to be given due process, Constitution be damned.
This first part of the film is also its most provocative, as Spielberg – or maybe Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Suite Française scribe Matt Charman – takes a direct hit at social and political mores of a time when the United States compromised its values and sacred institutions for the sake of getting one over their sworn enemy. Sad reflections of the present state of affairs are entirely coincidental, I’m sure. But sarcasm aside, and even with its overblown visual shorthand (bathing our virtuous hero in an radiant aura of soft light) and its comic flourishes – such as a subplot that has Donovan meddling in the budding romance between his assistant (Billy Magnussen) and his daughter (played by Eve Hewson, daughter of Ali and Bono – in a film about the U2 incident!) – it makes for a gripping half-hour of cinema. Big-message Spielberg, a la Schindler’s List and The Color Purple, is award-winning Spielberg.
But with the second act, Bridge of Spies (oh, that pun of a title) reveals itself to be much more in the vein of Catch Me If You Can as the derring-do espionage thriller it really is, when a spy plane pilot we barely know (Austin Stowell) gets shot down over Soviet territory – and fails to ‘spend the dollar’ before he’s captured by the Russkies – while in East Berlin an economics student we know even less (Will Rogers) finds himself stuck on the wrong side of the freshly-built wall. The former is an eventuality predicted by Donovan, an insurance lawyer versed in the ways of the actuary in this telling of the tale, while the latter gives him a challenge when he’s called on by the head of the CIA, no less, to act as the go-between in arranging the exchange of ‘our man’ for ‘their man’ in a situation where who ‘they’ are is becoming very fluid indeed.
By then the film has become a caper of sorts as Donovan pinballs between his exasperated CIA handlers, stuffy embassy attachés, a German lawyer with his own agenda (Sebastian Koch), even a gang of rejects from the German cast of West Side Story. And when that rendezvous on the bridge finally comes, we’ve descended irrevocably into the typical Spielberg schmaltz, diluting what might have been a tense moral examination to rival Munich. Blessedly, Tom Hanks plays to this the least. His everyman charm is employed to the desired effect as the apparently hapless middle-man whose steadfast resolve in the face of political and personal intransigence ultimately earns him the respect of all parties involved. But it’s all a little too neat and tidy compared to the crushing, overwhelming opposition he faces at the outset as the ultimate devil’s advocate.
Yet even at that, Bridge of Spies is still ultimately a film that questions blind allegiance to ideology – without knowing what words like ‘allegiance’ and ‘justice’ even mean – at the expense of real people’s lives, even if the final act obfuscates this in a swell of strings and feel-good moments. It’s a message I fear may be lost on an audience that lacks the patience, and the stomach, for Spielberg’s history lesson, however much he’s sweetened the pill.
Bridge of Spies opens nationwide on Thursday November 26th