by Ben Diamond
Only when you analyse Bridge of Spies after you’ve seen it do you realise what a strange beast it is. It’s a thriller with no plot twists, or any real thrills per se. But you simply don’t notice.
What, then, is keeping it chugging along?
Well, that would be Tom Hanks.
I shouldn’t have liked this film. I shouldn’t have liked the clunking patriotic message of ‘let’s treat our captured Russian spies better than the Russians would treat our spies, because we’re America and we’re the best’. I shouldn’t have liked the same diffused-light atmospheric setup Spielberg uses for every tense conversation in every room.
It’s 1957, the height of the Cold War, and Tom Hank’s character, a New York lawyer named James B. Donovan, is given the task of defending the indefensible – a Russian spy captured by the FBI. After striking up not quite a friendship, but a respectful relationship with said spy, Rudolf Abel, and managing to limit his sentence to 30 years in prison, narrowly avoiding the death penalty, he is sent on a diplomatic mission to Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Francis ‘Gary’ Powers, CIA spy shot down during a reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace.
At the beginning of the film Donovan sets out his moral stall for a rival lawyer whilst they are discussing an insurance claim they are both involved in. Donovan’s client has driven into several motorcyclists. The lawyer representing the claimaints says Donovan’s client is responsible for paying insurance claims for five separate incidents – the five injured parties. But Donovan isn’t having any of it – using the analagy of knocking down ten pins in a game of bowling, he says that that is one event, not ten separate events.
On his trip to Berlin, Donovan continues this holistic approach to cause and effect by deciding to take matters into his own hands by negotiating for the release of two prisoners, not one, by dragging Frederic Pryor, a wrongly-imprisoned American economics student into what is now a three-way negotiation between the GDR, the Soviets, and the USA. It’s all one big bowling game, and Donovan isn’t coming away with anything fewer than both pins.
This is no John Le Carré adaptation. No double-crossings or moral ambiguities. It’s clear what Donovan wants.
Which brings us back the original question again.
If Tom Hanks is the reason why the film works, and Hanks plays it straight down the line, what is he doing that’s so special?
I don’t know. It’s the Spielbergian magic. It has something to do with his understated way of playing a character with such decency and moral seriousness. He really shines in a very tense scene after he’s crossed over into east Berlin where a gang approaches him and tries to steal his coat. Just by being Tom Hanks, he comes out of the situation intact. It’s Catch Me If You Can Hanks we’re talking about here – decent man doing a difficult job, in the most decorous way possible. There is something completely charged and magnetic about his onscreen persona, without even the whiff of ham.
I must confess to having a similar feeling leaving the cinema that I had with SPECTRE – that it didn’t all quite add up, a sense of dissatisfaction at how things had resolved themselves by the end. Except, with SPECTRE, the whole film didn’t add up and the individual set pieces weren’t all that either, and in Bridge of Spies, without much actual action going on, individual scenes have a real sense of momentum to them.
Bridge of Spies strings its disparate parts together like Picasso’s Guernica. In this corner we’ve got an action sequence where Powers’s plane gets shot down. In that corner we’re watching Abel be pursued by the FBI on the New York subway (despite the obvious conclusion of this scene, it is a compelling opening). Over here we’re witnessing the revulsion which the public feel towards Donovan for defending a spy. And over there, there’s a runny nose, being passed from a Soviet spy, to Hanks, to others. Spielberg tries to spin a lot of plates at the same time. But it all adds up to something rather good.