An artist sits quietly painting a scene of the Brooklyn Bridge. An aeroplane sets off from Pakistan on a covert mission across enemy terrain. A young man pushes a bicycle across the frozen streets of East Berlin. Three seemingly disconnected events are drawn together as part of a spy game that stretches across the globe. This is the opening of Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s Cold War Thriller.
It is 1957 and the Cold War is entering a peculiar phase. On the one hand, the death of Stalin in 1953 has led to the Khrushchev Thaw, a period of rapprochement between East and West. On the other, tensions are high as both sides race to produce the most advanced intercontinental missiles. Paranoia is constantly knocking at the door as each side believes the other to have stockpiles of nuclear arms which are primed to fire at any time, when the truth is that the stocks are far smaller than the spooks would have their overlords believe.
This web of lies draws in James B Donovan, an insurance expert who is called up to a KGB agent’s defense counsel. This agent has been caught operating in a deep cover role inside the United States. Thankfully, that tired old trope of American cinema, the lawyer-as-hero, doesn’t lead to tedious courtroom scenes of celebrities bickering in soft focus.
Tom Hanks plays Donovan as a real man who suddenly becomes public enemy number one through no fault of his own. Resolute and honest, Donovan is also quietly cunning, something that proves to be a great asset as he stumbles into the shadowy world of espionage.
At a time in his career when many Hollywood legends settle down to collecting sympathy Oscars for performing thinly veiled versions of themselves, Hanks goes from strength to strength. He is utterly convincing as a man under enormous emotional strain with almost no friends around him, and allies who are only slightly less trustworthy than his enemies.
Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel also gives a muted performance as a man who seems to have no emotional reactions to the threat of execution that hangs over him. He is also frequently hilarious as he waits for his eventual fate. The script is by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers and it has plenty of the latter’s black humour, which comes as a welcome relief after their appalling gloomy Inside Llewyn Davies.
Bridge of Spies is a thriller that anyone can enjoy. It doesn’t have any of the fingernail-pulling violence of Syriana nor the incoherent complexity of many films in the genre. It has a pleasant retro feel, as if it could have been filmed in black and white with Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch taking the place of Donovan.
That’s not to say that it fails to show the reality of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Spielberg uses scenes that echo other scenes to bring home the sharp divide between the lives of people in the East and West. He doesn’t shy away from the darkness but neither does he indulge in a pornography of violence, as so many modern directors love to do.