Steven Spielberg hardly makes it fair. He remains the best in the business at revealing his exact emotional and informational intention with every scene while remaining under your radar the entire time, and no other filmmaker can make it look so easy. The Martian remains the best of the year, but that movie keeps the edge because Mars.
Bridge of Spies moves briskly yet leisurely. Mechanically, it’s about as perfect as spy thrillers get. The camera keeps still long enough for actors to convey the motivations and struggles of their respective characters and let them breathe, but it moves and cuts with a clear purpose every time. For a movie seeking to present a savvy idealist navigating an increasingly difficult situation, adding on one added spy-thriller wrinkle after another, the through-line is as straight and true as anything else Spielberg has ever made.
The reason for this is because of how credible yet confident the character of James Donovan is. Tom Hanks is as charismatic as ever, bringing to life a 20th Century John Adams and playing him like a cross between Atticus Finch and Captain America. Before the U2 spy incident even gets moving we spend a substantial amount of time getting to know him and his relationship with the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel, played by a sly but sage-like Mark Rylance.
Abel is remarkable for his artistry and aloofness. The film opens with him painting himself and follows him to an area where he continues painting, and picks up a secret Soviet message like mail, as if spying for them is just something he does on the side. Yet, when he’s captured and implicated, he acts like he’s just watching the movie play out. In other words, he’s a spy.
Hanks’s Donovan can’t help but admire that as he plunges into the world of espionage, which apparently happens to be an odd and jarring transition from the world of legal practice. Some critics have faulted Spielberg for displaying moral equivalence between our spy and the Russians, but that’s not actually what the function is. It’s his celebration of the unwavering Donovan doing the right thing for the country when the government won’t, in a microcosm of the Cold War about the Cold War.
The Cold War, as framed by the film, is little more than an arms-length negotiation between two distrusting parties. Donovan maneuvers through it with grace and audacity, and the movie hardly ever leaves him. Spielberg doesn’t mine the dramatic irony longer than necessary; Donovan himself is in a rush, for the only change in his character is how increasingly tired he is. So it means something when the climax of the movie involves a tense sequence of waiting and staring outside on a cold East Berlin day.
Bridge of Spies ranks in the middle of Spielberg’s achievements, yet still stands as one of the year’s most perfectly crafted films. Had this film been made by any other filmmaker, the Oscars would be priming to shower her with as many awards as it could get away with, and critics would call her the modern day Frank Capra. That won’t happen. Like I said; Spielberg doesn’t make it fair.