Film Review: Bridge of Spies

by Vincent Chan

Rated M. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance. Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Bridge of Spies opens with a man painting a portrait of himself, looking tired and slightly beaten. As this introduction progresses, one is drawn into a game of cat and mouse where though the action may be slower than usual, the suspense is never released.

Bridge of Spies is inspired by true events during the Cold War. The United States and Soviet Union are engaged in conflict not of arms, but of suspicion and information, wondering who will be the first to begin a nuclear strike that neither side wants. Crucial to this is the use of spies: collecting information, sending it, and remaining undetected.

In steps insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks). After Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is captured, Donovan gets the job that no one wants and everyone hates – defending the enemy in the court of law. Whilst initially reluctant, Donovan comes to realise that truth can sometimes be more grey. After all, isn’t a spy simply a man who is doing his job for his country? Things get even murkier when a U.S. pilot is captured and Donovan is brought into the world of international politics to negotiate a prisoner exchange.

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone is wearing suits. Whether the weather is warm or cold – they’re in a suit. Morning or night – you’re surrounded by suits. And thus you’re thrust into the world where tensions are high, trust is absent and everyone is suspicious about their neighbour. In that way, the costume department for Bridge of Spies has captured the mood perfectly. The suits represented a time in political history when an individual could never really let his guard down. The film only has a few moments depicting family life. For the rest, most moments are caught in courtroom dramas or tense negotiations. These tense times call for nothing less than the serious attire of the suit. 

The film itself plays out like a skilled painter who is gently applying his craft. Hanks brings an air of maturity to his role. Rarely is an actor able to give such subtle cues and yet leave you in no doubt about the conflict he feels. No small glance is wasted. In negotiation scenes, he demands your attention. Similarly, with Steven Spielberg steering the ship, each scene is always crafted to allow the volatility of the time to seep through. As Donovan lands in Germany and needs to negotiate his way around, Spielberg chooses to discard subtitles. Instead we’re forced alongside Donovan with limited grasp of the European languages, to endure the uneasiness of being in a foreign country with little knowledge of even basic communication.

 Rudolf Abel the Soviet spy is another stand out. With his slightly nonchalant attitude towards his own capture, Abel displays a weariness towards the recognition that he is a mere pawn in the greater game of politics. Yet Rylance adds to this, giving Abel a sense of duty and honour that could have easily been lost in the scheme of things.

 “Do we stand by our cause less resolutely than he stands by his?”

Abel’s relationship with Donovan really becomes key in Bridge of Spies. As Donovan defends him, he is forced to recognise that despite the hostility he faces from those who are suspicious and scared, the law of the land demands Abel gets a fair trial. These moments provide some of the strongest insights into Donovan’s character. The law is there for those who cannot defend themselves. Matthew 5:17-18:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished…

For Christians, the law is both wonderful and terrible. The law that Christians speak of is the law that God has given. It is wonderful, for it shows us how one should live. Yet it is terrible because none can fully uphold it and in fact, the more one tries, the more one is exposed to how far they fall short. However, the truly wonderful news is that Christ is the one who fully upheld the law so that the Christian can place their confidence in him. It’s interesting that in this film, Donovan gives lawyers quite a good image. For Christians, their confidence is not in the law or their own works – but in Christ who has fulfilled the law.

Bridge of Spies is great however would have been better with a faster pace, and more backstory for the lead characters. Yet, here is a film where we are able to witness craftsmen at their finest. It’s cinematic, it’s tense, it’s beautiful in many parts… and there’s also spies. I’m giving this four out of five stars.

Bridge of Spies releases in Australia next Thursday, 22nd October. It is screening now in the US and releases in the UK on the 27th November.

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