Bridge of Spies is a curious film. As Cold War sentiments against Russia escalate, Steven Spielberg revisits the height of the Cold War not to tell a story of nationalism or communist evils, but to tell a deeply humanist story. Spielberg once again taps into the humanity in all people and crafts a complex, warm, and principled piece of filmmaking.
James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an exceptional lawyer who is given the thankless job of defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a suspected Russian spy. Instead of accepting the role of rolling over and letting the system convict Rudolf, James decides to follow the letter of the law, saying that even their enemies deserve the safeguards of the American legal system.
The true star of the film is Spielberg’s direction and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography. The way the camera will move through a scene, the way Spielberg builds a moment, is a signature quality of his work. In an age where people cut dozens of time in a minute, Spielberg lets a shot breathe for a minute or two without being flashy. He wants the audience to lose themselves in the moment, not be impressed by his technical craft.
And yet the best direction in the world will only be of merit if it is in the service of something greater. In this case, it’s Spielberg’s humanism. US-Russian relations are spiraling downward day by day as more is learned about how Russian tampered with the 2016 American presidential election, it’s easy to villainize and dehumanize their people. Spielberg takes the high road.
The film is up-front about Abel being guilty. He is a Russian spy. Initially, it appears the film misses an opportunity to hook the audience into a mystery over whether or not he’s a spy. However, Spielberg takes that out of the equation and instead focuses on how even the guilty deserve basic rights of due process and fair judgement.
There are many other things to admire, such as the script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, but it’s that straint of humanism, even for one’s enemy, that make Bridge of Spies exceptional. In a world where hate is being flung in every direction, it’s important to remember the power of love, even love for one’s enemies.
© 2016 James Blake Ewing