Bridge of Spies feels like Steven Spielberg’s belated Father’s Day gift to America, a handsome-looking film about history, national values, and other things you can talk about with your dad over a good sandwich. It invites discussion through long, talky scenes about morally ambiguous matters, reminding us that certain things require care and reason and can’t be settled right away. The film ends in the early 1960s on an unresolved note—the conflicts of the story may have been settled, but the Cold War rages on—and this is Spielberg’s way of encouraging viewers to continue the conversations raised by the film after they leave the theater. The style of the film, further, evokes a sense of reverent curiosity when confronting history, with a noble, blue-gray color palette and earnest performances that make the most of the rhetorical dialogue. It may come across as a little dry and overly serious sometimes, but then so does my dad, and I still listen to his advice.
Thankfully Bridge of Spies is not all talk—the film contains at least a few sequences that remind us what a brilliant director of action Spielberg is. The opening passage, which depicts the surveillance and arrest of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), is a small masterpiece of suspense. With minimal dialogue, Spielberg follows Abel as he leaves his Brooklyn flat and is trailed by some federal agents on the subway. Small details, like the look of the agent as he first spots Abel, assume epic proportions as the viewer waits impatiently for the outcome of the scene. Another sequence, set in East Berlin, finds Tom Hanks’s insurance lawyer James Donovan watching a group of potential refugees get shot down attempting to climb over the Berlin Wall. Spielberg assumes Donovan’s distant perspective, which helps the audience share his feelings of sadness and powerlessness.
Both of these sequences point to the life-or-death stakes of the Cold War, which is the film’s grand subject. How did two geopolitical superpowers manage to negotiate relative peace with one another while threatening to blow each other up? Spielberg asks. The answer, the movie suggests, is contained in measured discourse. The second half of Bridge of Spies hinges on the exchange of Abel for two Americans captured behind the Iron Curtain, a feat that requires all of Donovan’s negotiating skills. Spielberg shows us in one patient scene after another—Donovan meets with representatives of East Germany and the Soviet Union, using different rhetorical tactics to secure the trade of each American prisoner.
Hanks’s demeanor in these scenes is courteous but sharp. He comes across like a good insurance lawyer—which, of course, is what he is. Bridge of Spies suggests that it took a decent, upstanding citizen to manage the conflict of the Cold War, since it’s in such people that national values reside. It’s an idealistic film, although it doesn’t assert its idealism blindly. The negotiating scenes, as well as those in which Donovan prepares Abel’s case when he’s defending him in the American courts, are made to seem like hard work for the audience as well as the characters—the movie slows down in these passages and requires viewers to pay close attention to everything that’s said. Spielberg doesn’t get enough credit as a director of actors. One could imagine these scenes being deathly dull, but his cast finds enough shadings in the material to bring it vividly to life.