What I love most about Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies is that it tells the story of an American hero who didn't punch his way across Europe or rescue his daughter from terrorists. James Donovan saved lives in ways that left both sides of the world happy. His reluctance to simply let a foreign spy die made him a bad guy in the short term but history has proven what a great man he is. In the hands of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks Donovan's story is beautifully done.
I wanted to share five things that I loved about Bridge of Spies.
1. Steven Spielberg excels at directing films about unassuming heroes.
Steven Spielberg was at a press junket and this is what he said about making movies about heroes.
To me, a hero is a hero. I like making pictures about people who have a personal mission in life...who start out with certain low expectations and then overachieve our highest expectations for them -- that's the kind of character arc I love dabbling in as a director.
Bridge of Spy's James Donovan was a family man and insurance lawyer who found himself negotiating prisoner swaps for the CIA in Cold War Germany. He didn't ask for the job yet he went above and beyond expectations and ended up saving lives.
He never set out to be a hero and that is why he was such a great man. He commanded respect because he wanted to do the right thing. We need people like this in the world and I'm glad Spielberg gave him the cinematic treatment only Spielberg can give.
2. Tom Hanks never fails to surprise.
Tom Hanks has always excelled at playing the good guy. There is an inherent likability and intelligence to him and I've always bought him as a leader, runner or cast away. What I love about his performance in Bridge of Spies is he doesn't rely on his "Hankiness" to coast through a complicated role.
Tom Hanks has never played this kind of character. He is kind but weary. He is grumpy but positive. Hank's work is very subtle and if you look close enough you will notice when things get heated he clenches his fists and looks ready to start swinging. The character has an edge and I love how he never turns down a whiskey drink or backs down from anything.
There is a fantastic moment when a police officer starts yelling at Donovan about defending the Soviet spy. Instead of backing down Donovan gets in the cops face and tells him to do his job. The way Hanks handles the scene is fantastic because he is obviously smaller but there is no hesitation or fear in his eyes. The physicality is impressive and I hope people notice what Hanks does.
This is a fantastic role and the best Hanks has been in a Spielberg film. He disappears into the performance and I really hope he gets nominated for an Academy Award.
3. Mark Rylance is amazing as the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel
Steven Spielberg sums up Rylance perfectly with this quote:
Mark Rylance is one of the most extraordinary actors working anywhere.
Mark Rylance's performance as Rudolf Abel may be my favorite of the year. It isn't flashy or over the top and I love that he simply creates a very complicated character.
What Rylance does best is not oversell the role or chew the scenery. I appreciated how Rylance's interpretation of Abel was slightly mischievous and earnest. Rylance realized the character was an actual human and not a super spy and that makes him believable.
I think what helps the most is that Rylance hasn't been in many films. He is one of the best theater actors on the planet but he hasn't cracked Hollywood. The fact that he isn't familiar allows you to think of him as character. I love that an unrepentant Soviet spy became endearing. I would be very surprised if he doesn't get nominated for an Oscar.
4. The script by Matt Charman, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen is funny, tense and warm.
Bridge of Spies does that something that I love. It isn't bogged by down expository dialogue and over explanation. You learn about the characters through actions and tiny moments. For instance, instead of telling us how crafty Rudolf Abel is, we get to see it.
Here is how the scene plays out. Abel is in a hotel room that is about to be rushed by about 20 agents. He knows the police are coming so he walks into a bathroom and when he is caught he is in a tank top and underwear. He unassumingly puts his dentures back in and comes across as a gentle old man. He gets the police off of high alert and manages to get them looking away while he destroys a cipher he received that morning. In a 60 second scene we learn everything we need to know about this guy. It is fantastic screenwriting that respects the audience.
Bridge of Spies is also loaded with warmth, humor and suspense. It is actually quite audacious in how it defuses tension. We go from holding our breath to laughing out loud and back to being tense. I applaud the screenwriters because they made a very hard job look easy.
5. It has one of the best scenes of the year.
There is a moment between Tom Hanks and a KGB Officer and that is absolutely surreal and real. In an effort to make the prisoner swaps Donovan had to work his way through endless bureaucracy and red tape in Berlin. One particular scene involves him meeting Abel's fake family and dealing with a low level DDR secretary.
It all seems very odd but it is actually a very important encounter. It is a game of chess between two intelligent men who find ways to cut through the double speak while still speaking in double speak. I love the moment because Donovan wasn't technically working for anyone (CIA secrecy) and the man he is talking to is just a secretary (KGB secrecy).
Spielberg excels at creating little moments that pack a huge punch. Whether it be Giovanni Ribisi talking about his mom in Saving Private Ryan or Quint waxing poetic about surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in Jaws. The moments give the actors A++ material and they knock it out of the park.