Saturday 12 December 2015


(Steven Spielberg, 2015)

Whether you love or hate Steven Spielberg, it is impossible to deny his talent as a visual storyteller. The talky dramas which are scattered throughout his later career (Lincoln being the most recent example) are chiefly interesting for the ways in which he tries to keep them visually exciting. Sometimes it can feel as if he is struggling against his material rather than attempting to adapt it.
That is not the case with Bridge of Spies, which feels like a large-scale '60s prestige drama, all big themes and important moments. Spielberg treats it that way, shooting it with a respect for classicism which is pleasing and which works.
The script - written by Joel & Ethan Coen, whose presence is evident in a few repeated phrases, alongside Matt Charman - is a little disjointed in its transition from the USA to East Berlin and different phases of the story crank into place without any elegance of subtlety (never a Spielberg strength, to be fair).
Tom Hanks does his honest, intelligent thing as Jim Donovan, a Brooklyn Lawyer chosen to defend Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) when the Government, his family and an angry public all just want it to be done and dusted. But Jim takes this duty seriously  and makes the trial a problem, securing life imprisonment for Abel when execution looked likely. This means that a few months later, when the Soviets capture SpyPlane pilot Francis Gary Powers, Jim is the man chosen to travel to East Berlin - as the Wall is being constructed - and negotiate an exchange.
Much of the action, then, revolves around men (invariably) engaged in important conversations in various rooms. Spielberg focuses on keeping it handsome, coherent and well-performed, all of which it is. When the screenplay gives him a chance to cut loose, he takes it: making Powers' shooting down a short, frightening vignette, and showing the capture of US student Frederic Pryor on the very day the wall is erected. His feel for place and atmosphere is still precise and nuanced, for all that he puts a Hollywood sheen on every shot and moment. At this point in his career, Spielberg's strengths are his weaknesses, and that storytelling ability sometimes seems too smooth and too easy ( a late shot of children climbing a Brooklyn fence chiming with an earlier shot of people scaling the Berlin Wall is a groan-inducing moment).
The cast help keep the many expository scenes flow painlessly. Rylance is especially superb, making Abel goo-humoured and melancholy; inimitably human.
Classy grown-up Hollywood entertainment, then, and I would expect no less of Spielberg.

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