"Bridge of Spies" takes a potentially dry screenplay and transcends it by way of artful, dominating mise en scéne
. Based on true events situated during the height of the Cold War, this historically attentive drama is talky but never stuffy, director Steven Spielberg (2011's "War Horse
") ensuring there is not a shred of narrative fat on its bones (if anything, he could have afforded to better explore his underused supporting players). By the filmmaker's side is go-to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (2012's "Lincoln
"), his meticulous camerawork alive with richly textured ambience. Reminding of a picture that would have been right at home in the 1960s, "Bridge of Spies" authentically captures a retro look and feel while dropping the viewer into an unsettled environment where Communist threats and nuclear fears were a part of the American consciousness. Where writers Ethan Coen & Joel Coen (2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis
") and Matt Charman go wrong is in treating some of the most prominent participants in the story less as fully fleshed-out people and more as plot devices.
When Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in 1957 under suspicion of being a Soviet spy, Brooklyn insurance claims lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is enlisted with the losing battle of defending him in court. His choice to fight for someone seen by the public as the enemy is controversialeven his concerned young son Roger (Noah Schnapp) challenges, "You're not a Communist, so why are you defending one?"but Donovan steadfastly believes in the right to a fair trial. Abel is ultimately convicted, but when American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and subsequently captured by the USSR, Donovan sees it as his chance to negotiate a swap between the warring nations. Adding an extra snarl to this plan is a second
U.S. citizen detained in the Soviet sector whom Donovan wants added to the trade agreement, economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers).
"Bridge of Spies" makes it difficult to care about the people whose lives are at stakemost notably Powers and Pryor, who are treated as pawns in the story and not given the proper attention to come into their ownbut the film works better as a low-simmering thriller about the act of maneuvering their trade. There are few actors as innately watchable as Tom Hanks (2013's "Saving Mr. Banks
"), and his work as James B. Donovana man of upstanding idealism, innately believing in the goodness of othersis customarily excellent. It goes without saying he is the anchor of the story, the one whose moral eyes we gaze through, but the production wouldn't have had quite the same appeal without him in this role. Mark Rylance (2008's "The Other Boleyn Girl
") brings a matter-of-fact, world-weary sensibility to Rudolf Abel, bouncing off Hanks with gravity and ease. As Donovan's wife Mary, who isn't initially thrilled with him representing Abel, Amy Ryan (2014's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
") is mostly called upon to serve pot roast, put groceries away, and hold bananas. Ryan's last, wordless scene is played so beautifully by the actress it is impossible to not be let down by what an otherwise inconsequential part she has been given.
Those expecting the copious action and daring of a 007 espionage adventure won't get it with "Bridge of Spies." This is an adult-driven, dialogue-centric entertainment, one where the majority of thrilling moments contain no more than narrowed eyes and brisk walking. As such, Spielberg and Kaminski have bred a handful of thoroughly captivating set-pieces, one shot with handheld cameras as FBI agents trace Abel on a crowded subway platform and another where Donovan is followed by a shady CIA figure during a torrential nighttime downpour. Perhaps the movie's most groundbreaking element, however, is its depiction of a lead character whose sniffles and coughs are not the result of a fatal disease, but of an old-fashioned cold. "Bridge of Spies" is rather quaint, penetrating only the top few layers of the specific era and climate in which it is set, but it is confidently made and seductively lensed all the same. Some may see a concluding image of kids climbing a fence between backyards as a heavy-handed juxtaposition to a key earlier moment, but the unspoken, if obvious, connection packs an unexpected emotional wallop.