Film Review: Bridge of Spies (US, 2015)

Watching Bridge of Spies, I couldn’t help picturing Steven Spielberg hopefully pressing his tuxedo. Along with Lincoln (2012), it is set in shadowy rooms with windows of blinding white light, like a Polaroid of American democracy in the process of development. Again, the themes are highly relevant today, despite taking place at the height of the Cold War.

James Donavan (Tom Hanks), an established insurance lawyer, is called on by his government, firstly, to defend a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) in a US court, and secondly, to negotiate his trade for a captured US pilot (Austin Stowell) in East Berlin. Upon doing both, he is met with hostility from both sides. The US and Soviets are interested in heads full of classified information, but for Donavan, “every person matters”.

In any case, no US government, Soviet bureaucrat or disgruntled American citizen is a match for Hank’s large, incredulous forehead. It is as disarming as Jimmy Stewart’s sigh, and wielded to the same noble purpose. If nothing else, it’s nice to see Hanks in a role that’s not based on a Dan Brown novel.

Unfortunately, he is surrounded by characters who, collectively, are hardly more interesting than a volleyball. It’s particularly disappointing to see Amy Ryan reduced to Hanks’ disapproving wife (boy, was she wrong). Rylance is an exception – his introduction is a masterclass of suspenseful, visual storytelling. However, even his journey plays out in contrived, Spielbergian cycles.

There is a writing credit for Joel and Ethan Coen, whose work is normally characterised by a tapestry of affectionately woven characters. Perhaps they have been recruited here in a barely disguised assault for Oscar glory. Janusz Kaminski has two statues for his cinematography, both on Spielberg films. Hanks returns, a veteran of the much lauded Saving Private Ryan (1998). John Williams is conspicuously missing, with music by Thomas Newman instead. Though his twelve nominations pales in comparison to Williams’ 49 (and 5 wins), Newman’s music is just as rousing, precise and predictable.

Precise is the right word – everybody achieves exactly what they’re going for because they are all very, very good at their jobs. But if E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982), or Catch Me if You Can (2002) are anything to go by, they are all much better than this. Still…

Review score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Bridge of Spies is released in Australian cinemas this Thursday, October 22nd.

Running time: 141 minutes

Rating: M