I’m more or less contractually obligated to watch a film titled Bridge of Spies (2015). The product of an unlikely collaboration between Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, this one is certainly good enough to climb onto the lower ranks of a hypothetically revised Spy 100 list, but make no mistake: it’s a Spielberg movie first, a spy movie second, and a Coen Brothers script at a distant third.
In 1957, when the FBI apprehends Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the government needs a competent defense attorney to legitimize their show trial. This no-win task falls to Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a slick but principled insurance lawyer, who does almost too good a job defending Abel before the guilty verdict—a foregone conclusion—lands. He’s so tenacious, though, that when the pilot of an American spy plane is shot down over Soviet soil, both sides want him to negotiate a clandestine prisoner exchange: the American pilot for Abel. This sends Donovan to a hostile, newly divided Berlin, an amateur spy in enemy territory trying to keep everyone alive, including himself.
Based on actual events, Bridge of Spies is a gripping enough tale of intrigue, and like most Spielberg product it’s finely rendered. The Cold War backdrop is vivid and convincing, particularly when the action shifts to Berlin, where the desperation of an ideologically divided world is writ large. It’s classic spy fare, and the plot has plenty of murky motives and requisite twists of fate. Hanks holds the stage adeptly, in a familiar noble scoundrel role, and Rylance brings a dry, winning touch to his supporting role.
Alas, the Spielberg-Coen flavors interact weirdly. The script only winks at the quirky, dark genius of the Coens, which is anyway at cross purposes with Spielberg’s broad-appeal patriotism and emotional manipulation. The result is off-balance: the subject matter’s naturally cynical foundation built high with obvious Hollywood hero worship. This isn’t to say the film is unsatisfying; indeed, Spielberg’s sensibility provides a varied tone in a genre that can often feel repetitive. But it does feel overly finessed, its physical realism and historic verisimilitude undercut by a veneer of emotional falseness.