Framed in conversation: Bridge of Spies
A historical drama that’s classic Spielberg, from characters to camera
Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance
The Glienicke Bridge, today a mundane cantilever thoroughfare, was once a gateway between East and West Berlin, between two ideologies opposed for decades on the brink of war. Yet, instead of the Glienicke’s becoming a Cold War battleground, it was a symbol of freedom and diplomacy. At its midpoint, high above the Havel River, dozens of captured agents crossed over to their countrymen on the other side between 1962 and 1986. Its four prisoner exchanges between the Soviets and the West across two decades, seminal moments in Cold War history, gave rise to the Glienicke’s enduring alias — the Bridge of Spies.
Steven Spielberg’s epic drama is the latest in an illustrious film career that spans more than four decades, and it feels like well-trodden ground for him. He is no stranger to depicting pivotal events in history, and he’s very comfortably in command for this entire film.
The lead, James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, finds himself in extraordinary circumstances: an insurance lawyer, he’s called upon by his country to defend a Soviet spy and later to negotiate the first Cold War prisoner exchange. Donovan, a believer in the unqualified privilege of justice, doesn’t take this on lightly. He mounts a solid case against overwhelming odds, fighting for the Constitution in his battleground of judges and juries.
Hanks and Donovan are really just cut from the same cloth, which is what leads to Hanks’ convincing performance. They’re both family men, immeasurably kind and morally upright, and Spielberg didn’t need to think twice about asking Hanks to come aboard.
Donovan’s client, the elderly spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), actually achieved nothing of significance during his eight years of espionage in New York. But after he’s captured, he has the whole panic-stricken country clamoring for his head.
Rylance, a three-time Tony winner, brings charisma and humanity to a challenging character. Though Abel was the most hated man in America, he nevertheless elicits the most respect from the audience. He’s a soldier, and behind enemy lines, he is unflinching in his commitment to his mother country. Abel and Donovan reflect each other, and their unbreakable characters are drawn to each other in a genuine friendship. As Donovan commits to continuing to fight for his client, Abel calls Donovan a “standing man,” one who remains upright against ever-stronger blows. Abel, though himself physically and verbally feeble, is steely in his resolve.
But, for Bridge of Spies, screenplay is a fraction of a whole. The Coen brothers’ script fully comes to life through Spielberg’s hallmark directing.
Spielberg’s use of light and shadow is particularly breathtaking. Lighting frequently washes out scenes, turning human profiles into dark silhouettes. Spielberg has done this throughout his career, but never more prominently than in Bridge of Spies, where light is amplified to give a surreal sensation to mundane surroundings.
Another trademark is his creative use of mirrors and reflections — to create a unique self-portrait of a character, as in the opening sequence with Abel, or to capture another piece of the scene in a visually distinctive way. It’s thrilling to see Spielberg at his filmmaking apex, when his years of dedication have solidified into consistently beautiful camerawork in collaboration with longtime friend and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
Spielberg’s brilliance is in his precision at conveying the nuance of conversation to the audience. What’s daunting for even the most prolific directors? Composing and framing lengthy conversations for the purpose of advancing the plot, while keeping the audience fully engaged. But it takes more than experience to create the ambience that Spielberg does. One-on-one conversation occupies half of the film, yet you hardly have a second to drift off. Each exchange is a chess game — who wins, who loses, who gains ground, who concedes? It’s Spielberg’s framing of the shot that provides these clues.
Take, for example, Donovan’s introduction. We encounter him sitting on a plush couch in a lavish parlor, a lamp by his side as soft jazz plays in the background. Symmetrically opposite him is his verbal foe, another insurance lawyer. Everything about the shot is immaculate: how Donovan quickly displays his linguistic prowess, how the camera angles show he has the upper hand. This one scene sets the stage perfectly for an entire film about a war fought in conversation, with information and words rather than weapons.
Again, later in the film, as Donovan meets with Abel after the trial has ended, one shot tells us so much. Peering into the sparse, concrete cell where the two dark profiles are seated against a blinding backdrop of sunlight, the camera lingers behind a three-paned window. Donovan is framed in the right pane, Abel in the left, and stark void in the center. Though they’ve gained a victory, there is little sense of relief in the space that hangs between them. Foreshadowing the tense events to take place in Berlin in the latter half of the film, the American and the Soviet know that there is no chance of rest in this turbulent era.
Bridge of Spies, an Oscar-contender before it even hit theaters, is reliably outstanding on all fronts and manifestly imprinted with Spielberg’s trademarks. Adding to his impressive repertoire of historical dramas, Spielberg again captures another era for modern audiences. But, as his audience has come to expect such flawless work from Spielberg over the years, it remains to be seen where he can go to break new ground.