Oscars 2016 Recap: Bridge of Spies Review

As part of my Oscars 2016 season, I’ll be reviewing some of the most popular nominees of 2015, weighing up their chances to win big at the awards this year. For the first entry, a review of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.

Bridge of Spies is a tense, captivating experience with a stellar lead cast and some beautiful set-pieces. Maybe Spielberg has set himself to autopilot, but he remains a master of suspense.

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Bridge Of Spies
Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The opening ten minutes or so of Bridge of Spies is undoubtedly its stand out sequence. Hardly a word is spoken as a group of FBI agents stalk their prey, Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), moving through the crowded subways and peaceful parks of circa-1957 Brooklyn. Nothing on screen is obviously amiss, but there is a pervasive feeling of unease cutting through the atmosphere. It’s a scene that might feel inane in less competent hands, but the technical prowess of 69 year-old Steven Spielberg remains evident. Within the first few frames, it is clear that atmosphere serves as the key to this film; from the snowy back streets of East Berlin, to an air force base in Pakistan, Bridge of Spies feels authentic to its cold war backdrop, helping to create a thoroughly believable world.

The picture’s greatest strength however, is in its emphasis on character; there is little time spent on the technicalities of international espionage, or the American criminal justice system. Fundamentally, it’s a human tale, the story of individuals who are both out of place and out of depth in an unforgiving world. The cast is primarily held together by its two leads; Tom Hanks is excellent as James B Donovan, an insurance lawyer unexpectedly thrown into the world of espionage and international negotiations when he is called upon to defend an exposed Soviet spy. However, particular praise must go to Mark Rylance, who gives a sympathetic and understated portrayal of the accused spy, Rudolf Abel. It’s a performance that casually moves from vulnerability, to stoicism, to humour, and does so in a restrained, quiet manner, which has thankfully been recognised with a supporting actor nomination at the Academy Awards.

Bridge Of Spies
Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Copyright 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

The story revolves around the 1960 U2 crisis, blending real history with cinematic embellishments to heighten the stakes. It all makes for an enjoyable and rewarding cold-war thriller, although it’s difficult to shake a sense of rigidity in Spielberg’s style. As with much of the director’s work since the turn of the century, there appears to be an aversion to taking any real risks. Bridge of Spies won’t leave you guessing, and the film’s final few moments fall into by-the-numbers Spielbergian sentimentality. It’s beautifully shot, superbly-acted, and the story is competently told, but the opening sequence of the film promises a style that doesn’t quite deliver.

Bridge of Spies has been produced with a masterful level of craft. Spielberg and his collaborators, including usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and featuring the Coen Brothers on script-duty, have fashioned an entertaining and character-driven story. John Williams is notably missing from the roll-call, with Thomas Newman serving as an able replacement, but otherwise its business as usual for the aged auteur. When the credits roll, there simply isn’t much food for thought. The history is depicted semi-faithfully, while the final few sequences create a palpable air of tension, but it’s difficult to find yourself engaging on an emotional level. Despite its few nominations, Bridge of Spies is unlikely to make waves at the Oscars. Perhaps not Spielberg’s best, but for taut spy cinema done properly, look no further.

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