Three times during Steven Spielberg’s cold-war drama, “Bridge of Spies”, an American lawyer comments to his client, a captured Soviet agent, that he doesn’t seem worried about his predicament. Three times his client gives the same deadpan response: “Would it help?” As amusing as the line is the first time you hear it, by the third time you feel that, actually, yes, maybe it would help. Perhaps if someone in the film were to express concern or anxiety or fear at some stage, “Bridge of Spies” would have the tension and excitement that it lacks. As it is, this true story of espionage and brinkmanship is so relaxed that it might as well be wearing slippers and sitting by the fire.
It doesn’t start like that. Set in Brooklyn in 1957, the opening of “Bridge of Spies” introduces a humble, ageing painter who is being tailed by sinister men in trilbies and trenchcoats – and no director’s chase sequences are as controlled and nerve-racking as Spielberg’s. The men turn out to be FBI agents, and the painter turns out to be Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a British citizen and a Soviet spy. When he is arrested, he quietly and casually refuses to deny the charges brought against him (again: would it help?), but the authorities want to showcase American justice to the world, so they accord him a competent defence attorney. Enter James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a smooth-talking insurance specialist who takes the job more seriously than anyone expected. He doesn’t just want to put on a show of defending Abel, he wants to do so as stringently as possible, even if it means upsetting a judge who believes the spy deserves everything he gets, and even if it means being branded a traitor.
Written by a British playwright, Matt Charman, and rewritten by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies” is on the verge, at this point, of engaging with some knotty, important and horribly timely issues. What does Western democracy stand for? Should it break its own rules and abandon its own principles in order to protect its people? Or should it stick to the letter of the law, whether or not that puts innocent lives at stake – in Donovan’s case, the lives of his wife and children? After he has been seen defending Abel, he is rewarded with several bullets through his sitting-room window.
The flaw in the film is that Donovan, like his client, just isn’t worried about any of these issues. He isn’t even worried about the drive-by shooting. As played by Hanks at his most folksy and James Stewart-ish, he is comfortably sure that he is right and that everyone else is wrong, which removes both the suspense and the debate.
It might have been a different matter if “Bridge of Spies” had developed into the full-blown courtroom drama it initially promises to be. But the second half of the film jumps past the legal questions and onto a separate story (and one in which the wonderfully nuanced Rylance is barely seen). When an American spyplane is shot down over Russia, and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is arrested, Donovan is assigned to negotiate a prisoner exchange, Abel for Powers. And so he decamps to grey, snowy, bomb-damaged Berlin, where he plods back and forth between East and West Germany, sweet-talking various Soviet officials with his irresistible combination of cunning, courage and affability.
It’s here that “Bridge of Spies” is most like a typical Coen brothers film. A well-meaning American feeling his way through a Kafkaesque labyrinth of obfuscation and hostility, Donovan could be the hero of any one of the Coens’ cruel farces. The difference is that, if the Coens were directing they would have their poor hero whirling helplessly out of his comfort zone, whereas Spielberg keeps Donovan cool and calm and steady as a rock. In a secret meeting with a notorious KGB officer? No problem – they get along just fine. Thrown into an East Berlin prison cell? Never mind – at least he can catch up on his sleep. Donovan never believes he is in serious danger, it seems, and so the viewer can’t believe it, either. Even a mugging is depicted as an amiable affair in which the assembled thugs offer Donovan directions to Unter den Linden as payment for his overcoat.
“Bridge of Spies” is never less than handsome and well-acted, and it includes lots of tantalising spycraft details: in the cold war, both the Americans and the Soviets were apparently fond of hiding things in hollowed-out coins. But it is also painfully slow. What the material needed was Spielberg the breathtaking showman who can terrify us with a dinosaur, a giant boulder or a rubber shark. What it gets is Spielberg the venerable history professor, looking back fondly at a more civilised era.
Bridge of Spies out now in America, out in Britain on November 27th