Steven Spielberg is in history teacher mode for Bridge of Spies, a dramatized account of insurance lawyer James Donovan’s involvement in a highly publicized 1957 espionage case. And like a teacher in control of his classroom, the movie is mostly effective because of what it keeps in check. Thomas Newman’s score is sparsely employed and relatively nuanced; Janusz Kaminski maintains a chilly, Cold War color palette that only occasionally indulges in high-wattage flourishes; Tom Hanks, as Donovan, does understated work. Overall, I’d describe the film as hushed.
Not that Bridge of Spies is enervating. An early “chase sequence,” in which a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is tailed by American agents, showcases Spielberg’s knack for staging suspense, even in the most mundane of situations. An elegant tracking shot follows Abel out of a subway car, but soon gives way to an unsteady handheld camera, interrupted by a series of jostling edits. As Abel disappears in a sea of gray fedoras, dark suits and black glasses (he turns the conformity of 1950s America against itself), we can sense the pursuing agents’ rising panic.
Hanks appears after Abel is arrested and Donovan is assigned to be his perfunctory defense lawyer. Everyone else in the world — from the CIA agents keeping an eye on Donovan to the presiding judge to Donovan’s fellow commuters on the subway, who are following the case in the newspaper — wants Abel railroaded toward execution. But Donovan insists on due process and thorough representation, an insistence that grows stronger, and riskier, as the movie goes on.
Why is Donovan so determined to be the lone defender of American integrity?
The contemporary parallels are clear. If an accused terrorist was arrested on American soil today and charged with plotting against the country, would he or she get a fair shake in court? Spielberg, working from a script by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, perhaps presses this point a bit too broadly, as when there’s a smash cut from the ponderously biased judge (Dakin Matthews) telling his courtroom, “All rise!” to a classroom of grade schoolers standing to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The obvious question Bridge of Spies wants us to consider is the same one that could have been asked during the Cold War era: What does the United States of America truly stand for? Are we willing to uphold those constitutional convictions even when we feel threatened by outside forces?
The movie’s James Donovan never has any doubt as to how to answer, which makes him less of a character than a walking thesis statement. As he’s told early on, “Don’t go Boy Scout on me.” As tensions rise — as Donovan’s family is threatened and he finds himself getting drawn into a murky CIA espionage plot — it’s natural to wonder, Why is Donovan so determined to be the lone defender of American integrity? It’s a crucial question that the movie frustratingly dodges. Bridge of Spies seems to feel as if it’s provided an answer simply by casting Tom Hanks.