I saw two Cold War films this year, and they could not have been more different. The first, Guy Richie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E, was a fictional, jarring comedy-thriller that had you laughing and gasping in the same frame. It dealt with both the action in Germany and Russia and the whispered negotiations of suits up above. The second, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ Bridge of Spies, however, was a much subtler, darker interpretation of true events happening in the late 50s in America, Russia, and Germany. The story follows that of insurance lawyer James B. Donovan’s case to free the KGB spy Rudolf Abel from American imprisonment. In working out this negotiation, Donovan ends up getting entangled in the cases of Francis Gary Powers and Frederick Pryor, both taken into Soviet custody.
The visual and emotional DNA of this film work together hand-in-hand in a way that you wouldn’t expect from Spielberg. For a director who doesn’t always go for the small scene, this film is a step back, and it pays off. The organic filming style and subdued, earthy colors of a world at war provide a sense of immediate connection between the characters and the audience. Aside from a select few scenes of action and real, physical body counting, there’s no pomp and circumstance; nothing to separate the gladiator from the spectator. Not to mention, all the performances in the film are grounded in the history from which they come.
Tom Hanks brings a “middle man” feeling to Donovan; a feeling of not knowing what to do with the extraordinary situation he has brought himself into, but knowing he must come out of it with a solution for every man involved for the good of those men and their country. Mark Rylance as Abel, Donovan’s client and eventual friend gives a compelling, deadly calm, and at times slightly off-kilter performance. No one can ever really quite tell what’s happening in the man’s head, and sometimes, you can’t tell whether or not you want to.
Austin Stowell’s performance as American pilot Francis Gary Powers is emotional and truly sincere. His character is young and proud and scared of what is happening to him, and Stowell plays that effortlessly. Stowell reportedly locked himself in the prison cell in which they shot the scenes set there in order to properly communicate to the audience and to himself what Powers went through during his time in encapturement in the Soviet Union–a task not many other actors might sign up for.
The rest of the main cast, rounded out with Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife Mary and Alan Alda as Thomas Walters, is equally as exceptional as their castmates.
THE VERDICT: Bridge of Spies is an engaging, different, gritty film focusing on a topic frequently visited this year in film, and well worth your time.