“Bridge of Spies” is another historical drama from director Steven Spielberg, this time set during the cold war about prisoner exchange. It’s the story of James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), a lawyer, mostly insurance cases, who is chosen to defend an uncovered Russian spy in court. This later leads to his involvement in a dramatic prisoner exchange when one of the US spy planes crashes on soviet soil, leaving an American pilot in Russian custody.
This is an incredible story about moral and personal heroics, the kind that tend to show themselves when everyone is against you. The initial drama for Donovan is that he’s defending a man that the public has been programmed, be it through propaganda or the general atmosphere of fear, to hate and want dead. His very act of doing his job, and wanting to do it well, is tantamount to siding with the enemy. It presents this wonderfully hypocritical nature of American justice, where our rules and ideals are only for show when it really matters. Donovan’s alone in his personal and moral integrity, believing that every man counts and that everyone deserves a proper trial according the rules set by the United States. No one else, his family included, seems to truly understand this.
His strength of character is only further put to the test when he’s sent into East Berlin in order to facilitate a very dangerous and very shady prisoner exchange between the states, the soviets, and the German Democratic Republic, who have an innocent college student in their custody in order to be recognized as legitimate in the eyes of the super powers. The CIA only wants one result, and it can’t be overtly involved in the entire affair. Thus they turn to Donovan once more, a man with no legal representation in the government and every chance to be detained in East Berlin or shot.
Tom Hanks is the ideal casting for the likeable and sympathetic everyman, likely chosen for his star persona to fill in the shoes of what is easily a Capra-esque character in the vein of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.
It’s a very powerful story and well written, the script being co-written by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, but what actually weakens the film overall is in Spielberg’s directing. This is a story of heroism in a dark time, but the manner in which he presents it is almost oppressively heavy-handed and overly sentimental. This is a trait of his, something he employs in many of his movies, “Lincoln” being a more recent example, but here it seems out of place. In a movie like “Lincoln”, this overblown sentiment can seem fitting, given the period of the setting and the historical fame and importance of the main character. Abraham Lincoln is so recognized and known that it almost goes without saying that any interpretation, no matter how realistic or natural, will carry a huge weight and importance.
“Bridge of Spies” is a much smaller story, a drama of what goes on in the shadows and behind the scenes. The sort of heroism that is not played big for the masses because they are not privileged to know that information. The movie is not improved by slow zooms and melodic musical cues during smaller scenes. This sort of sentimental filmmaking is at times so overblown it hurts the scene. In this case the performances, script, and story are strong enough on their own to elicit such feelings naturally. As it is, Spielberg’s handling comes across as manipulative and unnecessary.