One of the surprising things about Bridge of Spies is not really that Steven Spielberg directed this story, which tracks the trial and then trade of a Russian spy in 1957 (an exchange for an American pilot, and someone else who I'll get to shortly). It's the kind of material that would attract Spielberg, especially with the hero of the story, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), who comes into a situation he shouldn't be involved with but not only can pull off talking and reasoning with people and finding the better side of a situation or person's nature. What's surprising in a way is the involvement of the Coen brothers with the script.
It's hard to say if Matt Charman was the primary writer (someone I'm not familiar with, not least on the level of his co-writers) and if the brothers came in on a polish. But watching the movie, it does make more sense - certainly more than Unbroken, which barely has their touch - since it carries a lot of dry wit in the exchanges between characters, in particular the opposing attitudes of people in this 'period' setting.
Hanks' Donovan is a straight-shooting guy who believes in the constitution of the United States and wants to do right, legally speaking, by his client Rudolf (Mark Rylance in a fine, subtle supporting role), and doesn't really care per-say what he's done or didn't do. This doesn't fly well in a society that is overrun with Red-Scare fever and end up doing the worst of things when in total fear of things (i.e. the A-bomb, which gets a kind of cameo in the film in a way that Spielberg I'm sure has a personal connection with, being a child of the 50's, but I digress).
|Hanks' "I ain't gonna take yo shit, fool" face|
The Coens I think brought a sense of realism to things, but also stylization; the way characters talk at times there's a lot of things where people try to figure the other person out, which is fascinating to watch. When Donovan arrives at the first part of the mission he's given in the second part of the film, to do this exchange of the Russian for an American pilot caught by the enemy, he goes to the Russians and doesn't talk to the lawyer (who he thought to talk to) but some other official.
Spielberg covers this expertly, going in on Hanks and the other actor at just the right moments to emphasize things getting tenser, as the chess game of wills grows stronger on each opposing side - another young American, a student caught up in the mix of things (it IS East Berlin, after all) - but the script dictates a lot of the momentum here. And at the same time the Coens aren't necessarily making it 'Coens-y', in a manner of speaking; they serve their filmmaker extremely well, giving a light air to a good number of scenes in a way that keeps the tension and suspense in a good balance.
|Not a fair multiple-choice question as to who makes it out alive right there...|
Bridge of Spies may have Hanks being, shall we say, Jimmy Stewart-like (I know other critics will or have), and is the guy the audience likes - his endearing characteristic in the second half, of all things, is a cold. But it's because Spielberg embraces this, as does Hanks in playing him, that he's a man who will stop at nothing to get done what needs to be done for a man's freedom and security (or how he sees it, so down the line, despite whatever happens in prison walls with glaring lights and big questions about this or that for information).
Perhaps with a tougher kind of actor this wouldn't work, like I could never picture, say, Bruce Willis in this role. Hanks comes in and is unequivocal in his earnest desire for justice ("Everyone deserves a defense, every life matters" echoes another Spielberg motto in Schindler's List), and it's refreshing in a way to see this in a movie right now.
Aside from the plane crash which takes down the pilot Powers, which kicks off the main part of the story, it's not an action movie, and it's really about men and their will in tense situations. The filmmaking is that wonderful, seemingly effortless take on dramatic storytelling, and the acting by the supporting players (many character actors who you may have not seen before or recognize from other films just vaguely) are superb.
Aside from those small points, this is near-classic work by this director, with a star in top form who is so wholly convincing that I'd love to see a sequel with his character (without spoiling, per-say, as it is history, the real man went on to the Bay of Pigs crisis of all things). It's also a wholesome movie in that old-time Hollywood sense, but not in a way that should date it any time soon; it takes a stand for what should be held accountable for those accused, and that, really, having a good insurance policy is maybe the only policy that's logical.