Bridge of Spies

The review was written for Culture Fly


Steven Spielberg loves hats.

One of his most popular characters is defined by his hat and hats have become a Spielberg motif for character ambitions, even the man himself is known to seemingly have a baseball cap within reach at all times. Why? The hat may be there to contain his imagination; this is the man who reanimated dinosaurs after all. So, it’s pleasing to report that his latest film, Bridge of Spies, has strong hat game.

Bridge of Spies revolves around James Donovan’s (Tom Hanks) efforts to defend the Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in a show trial, even if it threatens his family. Eventually, his attitude makes the CIA recruit him to be the negotiator for a prisoner exchange between the Americans and Soviets: Abel for the square-jawed Gary Powers (Austin Stowell).

The story is one of two halves with the script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers becoming repetitive as Hanks’ Donovan stubbornly stands firm and waits for the supporting cast to see his point of view. The female characters are also terrible, appearing as secretaries, wives or daughters. From the man who gave the world Dr Ellie Sattler, this is a disappointment. However, the dialogue is fantastic and watching Hanks verbally spar with whatever character actor is put in front of him is a joy. It will be hard to find anyone who can deliver sass as well as Tom Hanks.

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Janusz Kaminsky’s cinematography is the perfect blend of murky and crisp… big up shooting on film // ©20thCenturyFox/Dreamworks

The casting of Mark Rylance, a man who also looks good in a hat, is an interesting move that layers the character interactions with some subtle meta-commentary. Rylance, an unknown to much of the movie-going public, is able to disappear into Abel with his gait, voice and expressions oozing the relative ease in which the spy operates.

On the other hand, Hanks is like Donovan, out in the open, with more to lose, and he is unable to escape the shadow of Tom Hanks the movie star. In his fourth film with Spielberg, ease between star and director is obvious and Hanks is reliably good, with his everyman schtick reaching an all-time high. The scenes between Rylance and Hanks are the strongest but you never get a sense that their friendship is as strong as the film wants it to be.

Apart from the adrenaline shot of the plane crash, the scenes involving Stowell’s Powers are dull and it speaks to Spielberg’s direction that he makes the bureaucratic, two-way conversations cinematic and interesting.

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Awaiting the sentence, Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Billy Magnussen //©20thCenturyFox/Dreamworks

Spielberg restrains himself, with the cloying sentimentality and jingoism remaining underplayed. It is still there and some classic Soviet sadism is present but the all-righteous Americans are also scrutinised. Here, instead of the vomit inducing family reunion, the director undercuts the emotional abundance with a gag involving a hat resting on the floor.

Even with his reputation as the first blockbuster director, Spielberg has always retained a traditional filmmaking approach, letting his actors act instead of hiding behind editing. Here, he takes this a step further and makes Bridge of Spies feel Hawksian, and its not just the fedoras, for the tone and style is decidedly old school.

As Abel is being escorted from his prison cell, he stops for a minute and enquires about his hat. He is in no rush and doesn’t care about his fate. It is a metaphor that speaks to modern Spielberg. He knows what he’s capable of, he has nothing to prove, so it is the little things that bother him and it is the little things, the small moments, that makes Bridge of Spies so engrossing.

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