In 1962, Bronx lawyer and ex-Navy officer James B. Donovan negotiated a tense prisoner transfer between the United States of America, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic. The negotiation required Donovan to enter East Germany at the behest of his country, but without any official recognition from America. Rather, Donovan was operating on behalf of his client, one Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy he’d (unsuccessfully) defended years earlier.
Perhaps that little synopsis gives too much away of the storyline of Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s dramatisation of these events. But you get the sense that narrative uncertainty isn’t integral to Spielberg’s goals in making this picture, which spends the first hour or so of its 140 minute runtime on Donovan’s (Tom Hanks’) doomed defence of Abel (Mark Rylance). Even if you were unfamiliar with the historical specifics of the case, the movie’s marketing – from its clumsy title to its trailer – emphasises that this is a film about an exchange of prisoners.
So why spend so long on Donovan’s defence of Abel? The trial’s draped in a thick atmosphere of futility from the get-go whether or not you’re familiar with these aforementioned extratextual elements. When asked to take the case by his boss (Alan Alda), it’s made clear that Donovan – an insurance lawyer, not a criminal lawyer – is there for show, not substance. He’s an actor in a carefully-orchestrated theatre, one designed to convince the world that America is the land of freedom and justice.
As screenwriters Matt Charman and the Coen brothers see it, that sort of justice is thin on the ground. Donovan is accosted by CIA agents expecting his cooperation, implicitly suggesting he violate attorney-client privilege. The officious judge overseeing Abel’s prosecution dismisses seemingly valid motions of illegal searches with barely a moment’s thought. Donovan remains resolutely principled throughout, consistently acting in the best interests of his client. For his integrity, he’s rewarded with dirty looks on the subway and even gunfire, sprayed indiscriminately into his family home.
While this chapter of the story might be dramatically inert, without the smallest suggestion that Abel’s defence might prove successful, it gradually becomes clear that that’s the entire point. Long-time Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski consistently shoots Bridge of Spies with an alienating wide-angle lens – and perhaps overly strong backlight – while regarding authority figures from intimidating low shots. He creates a prevailing sense of institutional unfairness, of single-minded systems driven to destroy the individual without sympathy or humanity. His august cinematography lends the first hour an emotional drama that its screenplay largely eschews; while it might be narratively unsatisfying, it’s never uninteresting to look at.
Bridge of Spies’ back half finds a more thrilling tale to tell. The fraught negotiations Donovan undertakes in Berlin are conventionally gripping, pairing moral complexity with the imminent threat of violence (Donovan’s visit coincides with the construction of the Berlin Wall, which I had assumed was a dramatic concession but turns out to be mostly historically accurate). The division between the two halves of the film is interesting thematically as well as dramatically, though, and to understand why I want to quickly return to Kaminski’s cinematography; in particular, his memorable opening shot.
We begin the film regarding Abel from behind as he completes a self-portrait. He’s framed from behind, in the centre of the screen, but we can see both his reflection in the mirror to his left and his precisely-painted portrait on the right. As an opening shot, its symbolism seemed unmistakeable; this, I felt, was to be a film about the conflict between an authentic identity – or the illusion of one – and the personality one creates to fit into society; in this case, to quite explicitly ‘fit in to society’ as a spy.
Except that isn’t really what the film delivers. Bridge of Spies presents a thoughtful portrait of Abel in its own way, largely thanks to Rylance’s restrained, empathetic performance – a brilliantly subtle piece of craft that deserves recognition come awards season. But it isn’t really interested in Abel as a character – this is very much a supporting role – and the expected meditation on the complexity of identity never quite eventuates. Upon reflection, that’s because Bridge of Spies is more interested in analysing American patriotism than its patriots (or enemies).
The film’s first half, then, operates as a clear-eyed vision of the reality of nationalism; specifically, that it goes hand-in-hand with either delusion or disappointment. Bridge of Spies’ America asserts her independence, her equality, her fairness …before staging a glorified show trial to punish her enemies, before betraying the very tenets of her ethical framework to eke out the smallest victories against her opponents. Donovan might be preternaturally principled – he’s so committed to the laws of the land that you could nickname him ‘Constitution Man’ – but his resolution seems quaint when thrown against the might of single-minded patriotism. Patriotism built not on values, but rather the kind built on exclusion and superiority.
The more narratively-satisfying back half of the film then proves thematically unsatisfying upon reflection. If this is a film about a country grappling with its own identity – deciding between the imperfect image seen in the mirror or the idealised painting – then I would argue it skews too closely to the latter to serve as a satisfying, or sufficient complex, portrait. In the first hour, Donovan’s single-minded, impossibly ethical mindset is rebuked again and again, in a savage refutation of the naïve idea that individuals – not systems – are the drivers of change. But the rest of the film achieves the opposite, where this one lawyer’s refusal to give up – encapsulated by Abel’s speech about the “Standing Man” – achieves the impossible. In of itself, that’s understandable (and grounded in fact), but the way the screenplay suggests America’s superiority in a train voyage home – no walls here, folks! – seems to uncritically adopt all the nastier sides of nationalism; “they hate us because they ain’t us.”
It doesn’t help that Hanks’ Mr Smith Goes to Washington shtick is a little too tired to sustain a 2-plus hour runtime. James B. Donovan isn’t a character – he’s an ideal. That’s interesting for a while, but when it becomes clear he’s never going to break, never going to compromise, it becomes hard to engage with him at any level beyond the symbol. The complete absence of substantial female characters – Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan is relegated to ‘nagging wife’ – exacerbates these problems. If the film fails as an interrogation of nationalism and as a dramatic work, what’s the point?
That’s overly harsh, granted. There are ample pleasures here – Kaminski’s cinematography, Rylance’s performance, the sly Coen brothers’ humour and Spielberg’s eye for the iconic – even if the total feels incomplete: a bridge to nowhere.