Film Review: Bridge of Spies
In the second scene of Bridge of Spies where the audience is introduced to James P. Donovan, the insurance lawyer turned national hero played by Tom Hanks.
Donovan is speaking with a rival lawyer. The rival asserts Donovan’s client, an insurance company, has failed to fully honour the insurance claim. The basis for this assertion is that the insured party hit five people with his car, thus committing “five things”. Donovan counters that it was one accident, not five, and that if a house is insured and then destroyed, one house was destroyed and not “every stick of furniture”.
Reaching legal analogies aside, Bridge of Spies is best understood as the house, rather than every stick of furniture.
Bridge of Spies tells the story of the 1960 U-2 Spy Plane incident, where United States Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in the USSR while taking spy pictures behind enemy lines. The US sent Donovan to East Germany to negotiate an exchange for Rudolph Abel—a British-born Russian operative working in the States—who escaped execution thanks to Donovan representing him in court.
The film is an all-American throwback that is far from Steven Spielberg’s greatest work. However, Spielberg is operating on an elevated playing field where every decision, both theatrical and technical, fits into one well-oiled Cold War machine. Hanks’s performance as Donovan is nostalgic, warm, and reminiscent of some of Golden Age Hollywood’s most legendary legal roles—Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Jimmy Stewart’s Paul Biegler in Anatomy of a Murder come to mind.
Hanks is not breaking any barriers artistically, but as a person recently voted the most trustworthy man in America, he plays his part perfectly. The same can be said of many other cast members, including Donovan’s wife played ever-patiently by Amy Ryan, and Austin Stowell, who plays Powers. Most of the cast operates like a technically sound baseball team, with each batter placing well-timed and technically sound hits around the field without any big slugger swinging for the fences.
The one standout performance is Shakespearian actor Mark Rylance, who has spent the last decade conquering the stage in both Britain and America. He shines in his big American film break as Abel—the mild mannered Russian spy whose arrest in the first scene of the film sets the groundwork for the rest of the plot. Rylance exhibits a subtle brilliance, taking a tight and clever script written by film giants Joel and Ethan Coen, he delivers on each subdued syllable. Abel only appears in a handful of scenes, but one can be forgiven for imagining that he is just as prominent as Donovan and there is definitely a sense of anticipation when he enters the fray.
Bridge of Spies succeeds because it blends a well-paced historical drama with a vintage Spielberg/Hanks collaboration. Law students can appreciate Donovan’s moral compass as a lawyer who gives his client a fair trial even though the American people do not believe he deserves it. Film lovers can appreciate a vintage Spielberg production. I predict Bridge of Spies garners its fair share of accolades come award season.
Ethan Gordon is a Staff Writer for Juris Diction. He is a 1L student.