Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) has been living in New York City, Brooklyn to be exact, for some time, but that does not mean he has not attracted attention. Not for his painting, but for his shady dealings with foreign powers, for the year is 1957 and the Cold War is at its height, on everyone's minds not least the governments of East and West who each have planted spies in the other countries to garner as much information as they can about certain activities. Although never admitted as such, Abel is a Soviet spy, and he retrieves and delivers his information in a hollow nickel that his contact picks up and leaves for him to find at pre-arranged places around the city. However, the C.I.A. are all too aware of this...
Bridge of Spies was not a film adaptation of the T'Pau album of the nineteen-eighties, though the Cold War hadn't gone away by then either, but a version of true events that concentrated on the activities of the lawyer James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks. He was the one who drew the short straw and was elected to defend Abel in the American courts against charges of spying, something neither the accused nor the Soviet authorities ever acknowledged him to be in spite of the evidence to the contrary, plus the fact that they welcomed him back behind the Iron Curtain in the exchange of prisoners that made up the bulk of this film's drama. As had been the case for some time, with Janusz Kaminski on cinematography duties for director Steven Spielberg, you could rely on this looking good.
Kaminski preferred to light the sets in semi-darkness, as if to underline the manner in which the world was brooding over the conflict that held it in its grip, with only a very few scenes shot brightly. Presumably this was intended to reflect the spy fiction of the era it was placed in, the more serious stuff at any rate, but while you could not quibble with the presentation, that was typical of the issues afflicting the film as a whole: impeccably produced, yet falling back on the Cold War material of before to craft something that really needed a breath of life rather than a studious recreation of the past. Time and again we would be looking at some cityscape and time and again we would notice it was a pristine use of CGI that was delivering those images.
The most obvious use of graphics was the sequence where spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) was shot down over Eastern Europe and became a pawn in the wearying game of suspicion and espionage, technically admirable but with the swooping camera and obvious use of green screen they were never going to convince you that you were watching anything other than a reconstruction, and one that allowed the director to flex his action movie muscles in a film that was largely talk. It came across as if so much work had gone into the details of 1957 that the story was not being allowed to come into its own, and left you pondering whether a documentary might not have been preferable which would have told you just as much, or even more, without distracting you by nudging the audience to check out the cars or whatever.
What to do instead was to concentrate on some very decent performances which at least provided an entry point to the events, as Hanks was his usual keenly capable self and once again embodying a hero type even if most Americans were outraged by him when he agreed to defend Abel (though the film makes him very reluctant to do so), to the extent of shooting at his house, as if they would prefer their law services be put on hold to implement mob rule simply because they didn't much like what the accused was standing for, not that he was coming clean about anything very much. Rylance won an Oscar for his role, and he was extremely good in a subtle, weirdly innocent way, conveying an innocence of being manipulated by forces far bigger than he was, therefore we were supposed to regard him as unimportant and allow him to return to civilian life. We cannot tell if he was a patsy or a genuine threat, and that makes him dangerous, though Spielberg preferred to emphasise the growing respect both Abel and Donovan found for each other. Add that to the burgeoning, treacly patriotism in a very fifties fashion, with Thomas Newman's music going into flag-raising overdrive in the last act, and you had a bit of a curate's egg.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.