PATRIOTISM lies at the heart of Bridge of Spies (Cert 12A, 141 mins), Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, though there is none of the brash flag-waving you might expect.
The “inspired by true events” story sees Hanks take the lead role as James B Donovan – an Irish-American lawyer whose legal stringency sees him unexpectedly dropped into the mire of Cold War politics, where he must question what it means to be an American.
In 1957, as tensions between the United States and Russia ramped up, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York City and accused of being a Soviet spy.
At the request of the US government, Donovan agrees to provide legal defence for Abel, but quickly realises that all the US are looking for is the pretence of a defence – this is a situation, he is told unequivocally, in which there is no rulebook.
The trial of Abel sets the scene for a much longer story of hostage negotiation that plays out in the film’s latter half when the action moves from New York to Berlin.
And, while the streets may be meaner in the newly divided city, we do not see an awful lot of them – following on from its courtroom drama beginnings, Bridge of Spies is the kind of film that takes place in large armchairs, in vast drawing rooms, and under gargantuan portraits.
With visually lavish sets, Spielberg masterfully and immediately sets the tone for this Cold War showdown. It is a time of terseness and temerity, where orders are given and never questioned, and conversations ended by the cold clack of Bakelite phones being shoved back onto receivers.
It is up to Hanks, who invokes that impossible-to-dislike quintessential everyman quality, to bring some warmth to this frigid environment.
However, there is plenty to help him along, complementing Spielberg’s fine attention to detail is some serious on-screen talent – Mark Rylance, who with clipped utterances and boundless intensity, steals the show time and again as the quietly enigmatic Abel.
A Cohen Brothers screenplay brings a welcome sense of humour and philosophical whimsy that at several points saves scenes from falling into that staid, grey grimness we associate with Cold War-era movies.
Bridge of Spies is a timely film, as through this mostly true story Spielberg not only brings an interesting period of history to life – he also brings into question what it is to be an American.
The character of Donovan provides that answer loud and clear: The American Constitution.The Constitution is a rulebook, and if you stop playing by that set of rules, then you have ceased to be an American, and have become something else.
The patriotism expounded in Bridge of Spies is not of the overt variety, like, say, in Clint Eastwood’s shockingly galling American Sniper – rather, it is concerned with interior ideals.
To be a real American, Spielberg seems to suggest, is to be virtuous, honest, and to honour the spirit of the law above the letter of the law.
It is fitting that this exaltation of interior values plays out mostly indoors, unfolding through conversations and negotiations.
Indeed, the one or two scenes with more typical action rankle, and seem out of place. The distinct lack of loud and frantic action may be off-putting for some cinemagoers, but it shouldn’t be.
Bridge of Spies is a solid film, with more than enough given by Hanks and Ryland to carry it through its 141-minute running time.
Spielberg may apply a liberal dose of schmaltz to the affair, but there is no denying he knows how to tell a great story.