Academics will (and often do) weigh in on auteur theory and what it means throughout the history of cinema. This isn’t the place to go into it in too much detail, but if you look at it this way, take a look at Martin Scorsese’s work and you essentially have a gamut of films all revolving around the common theme of deeply flawed men seeking redemption. If there is any kind of thematic undercurrent in many of the screen credits of Steven Spielberg too, it’s the oft-repeated theme of the individual caught up in something larger than himself, and yet still managing to rise to the occasion. His journey is the triumph of the everyman. And if you’re going to cast an everyman, you’d probably make a wise choice in casting Tom Hanks.
In Bridge of Spies, the everyman is an insurance lawyer called upon to be the face of American ‘justice’, ie everyone gets their day in court, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The lawyer in this case decides that he doesn’t just have to follow orders and do his job, he does his job well. The end result is the ugly truth behind the façade of American justice: everyone deserves their day in court, *except.
George Clooney made a superb film in 2005, Good Night, and Good Luck, which used the McCarthy/HUAC sessions of communist witch hunts as a parable for the Bush-era role of a questioning media. Like Clooney’s film before it, Spielberg’s film here is as relevant and prescient as it could possibly be – take the Abel case and frame it in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and it’s as relevant a parable as you could hope for. In Spielberg’s world view, this kind of idealism is an essential part of being American, in propelling the notion of American exceptionalism – that even if it doesn’t feel right on the surface, the hard way to get things done is what’s right in principle. It is simultaneously idealistic and condemnatory. ‘We’ should be acting one way, whereas in reality we act another. In a Capra-esque way, we have one man taking on a broken system, wherein he’s asked to do one thing and then tarred with the same brush for doing just that.
Bridge of Spies is a film of inordinate restraint. We’re a solid half hour into the piece before we hear the first notes of orchestral score (done here by Thomas Newman, subbing for John Williams who has composed all of Spielberg’s films before and since 1985’s The Color Purple). It’s uncharacteristically muted and quiet. It’s more akin to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than it is James Bond. The film’s tension comes not from action set-pieces, but dialogue (done here by the Coen brothers, of all people). The game afoot in this tale is one of negotiations and conversation. If it becomes elaborate and ‘thrilling’, it loses its realism.
There’s great work here from the actors. In a low-key, but confident and resolute performance, one of his better ones, Tom Hanks is superb. There’s a moment where he’s arguing his client’s case before the Supreme Court, with a tangible gravitas that speaks to the depth of his screen presence and talent. He doesn’t have ‘acting moments’ in the film, in as much it reminded me of Paul Newman’s performance in The Verdict. You don’t know how he does what he does to make him so watchable; so very, very good. At the same time, Mark Rylance is superb – again, endlessly restrained as Abel, conveying a wisdom and calm under his unique and daunting circumstances. ‘You don’t seem at all worried,’ Hanks’s lawyer comments. ‘Would it help?’ deadpans Rylance’s spy.
This is a serious, important, adult and mature chronicle of a moment in history. It’s as good as it is necessary, and as such, one of the year’s best films.