June 4, 2020

Bridge of Spies – well constructed Cold War drama rather than thriller

Mark Rylance was artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe for ten years. Seeing his name on a cast list is a good indicator of quality. Bridge of Spies is a tale of spies and behind-the-scenes negotiations for their release. It sounds like a dull Cold War plodder, but add in Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and you know that it will be above the average. Spielberg knows how to put a film together and keep the tension careful managed.

Bridge of Spies recounts the true tale of an American lawyer who must defend a man accused of spying for the Soviets. He then gets involved in the CIA’s plan to swap this man for an American prisoner held by the communists. It is set partly in a nostalgic America where reporters have press cards in their hat bands and everyone proudly watches a black and white TV. Some of the shots are reminiscent of Hopper’s paintings of streets devoid of humans. The action moves to East Berlin, where they also have TVs –  but they are smaller, less impressive and more often switched off rather than showing scenes from space. One nil America!

Rylance’s Rudolf Abel is a low-key, withdrawn character about whom we learn little, whilst Hanks has to have based his James B Donovan lawyer on James Stewart. He even exclaims Hot Dog in excitement just like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Of course we’re supposed to see Donovan as a hero but his actions come close to treason.

The film raises questions about the value of human life in general and the relative value of one person over another. There’s always a sense of jeopardy, that something could go wrong – except that this is Tom Hanks. And Steven Spielberg is at the helm.

An airman named Pryor is introduced late, just in time to play his part in the plot. He is a functional cipher for someone who needs help. There’s no emotional attachment and the film’s direction becomes something to watch rather than experience. Though interesting to follow, it didn’t engross. (But then there was a bizarre factor involved here that acted against full immersion in the film…the screening I saw in a major cinema in Central London didn’t dim the lights anything like as much as is normal. This made it noticeably harder to forget you were surrounded by people eating popcorn – mainly because you could clearly see that you were surrounded by people eating popcorn).

The music swells and tinkles continually. Scenes are rarely shot without the camera moving around or towards or over the actors. This eventually becomes wearing and gives the impression that as there’s not much actual action the film-makers have tried too hard to animate every shot. Bridge of Spies is a long, well-constructed drama – rather than thriller – of a man out of his comfort zone putting his country’s needs above those of himself and his family. As big budget films go it’s entertaining. Try to see it in the dark.

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