Film review: Bridge of Spies Print
Written by Ivan Radford   
Friday, 27 November 2015 16:38
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

How do you make a Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks better? Hire Mark Rylance. The Wolf Hall star is a veteran of the stage - and a relative rarity on camera. In his 55 years, he's been in just 13 films, including the upcoming adaptation of BFG. To see him even stand up on screen, therefore, is something of a treat.

Hanks, on the other hand, is the consummate everyman, a darling of Hollywood - and everyone else besides. He can talk the talk like nobody's business. The pair are perfectly cast in Bridge of Spies, the true tale of a lawyer hired to defend a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War.

That alone guarantees Spielberg's drama to be a success.

We first meet Hanks' James Donovan as he's verbally sparring with a rival in a bar, his words leaping high-jumps over his opponents' arguments. Matt Charman's script gives the Forrest Gump star a chance to show off his comic timing; Hanks has rarely been funnier in his career. He's charmingly witty and endearingly honourable - in other words, the perfect guy to root for, as he stands up to the noble task of giving legal defence to an anti-American.

As things progress, Hanks is sent over to Berlin to negotiate a swap: the Russian for captured US pilot Gary Powers. It's an optimistic deal, but he's an optimistic guy, cheerfully blowing his nose even as he's faced with bizarre fake relatives, slimy lawyers (a top-notch Sebastian Koch) and street gangs.

That upbeat mood sets Bridge of Spies apart from cinema's military norm - it's not often, particularly in modern times, that a war flick can be genuinely uplifting. But before you start hearing alarm bells in your head, along comes Rylance as Rudolf Abel. Rylance's Soviet dials down Spielberg's sentimental streak by underplaying every scene: while Hanks gesticulates, he stays quiet and still.

The stage actor's performance, as you would expect, is physical to the last. The opening of the movie, which begins with him rather than Hanks, is notably silent, relying solely on Rylance's shambling walk and sunken shoulders to do the exposition for us. He carries the presence of Alain Delon in Le Samurai, with Spielberg at his most restrained in years.

When Mark does open up, it makes each line all the more effective - you can practically see Hanks leaning into him, waiting on his every word. In an era of explosions and loud gunfire, Bridge of Spies appreciates the rat-a-tat of dialogue - for both Abel and Donovan, speech is the artillery of choice. When the whole historical conflict boils down to it, all we're doing is watching two opposing sides exchange words. It's riveting to watch. "Aren’t you worried?" asks Hanks. Rylance shoots back. "Would it help?"