There are good movies, there are well-crafted films, and then there are great Steven Spielberg films. Bridge of Spies, inspired by true events, is one of the more solid pieces of work from The Beard in many years, building tension, suspense, humor, and political intrigue without the assistance of any form of rip-roaring action, while displaying flawless performances from both Tom Hanks and the superb Mark Rylance.
The script, written by Joel & Ethan Coen and Matt Charman, does a fine job of not telling the audience who the bad guys or good guys are in this particular Cold War skirmish, but instead allows the story to unfold from the points-of-view of a few noted characters from both the American and Soviet sides. Bridge of Spies is a character film, not an action film, and the narrative expands upon how we feel about Rudolf Abel (the captured and purported Soviet spy, played by Mark Rylance, that Tom Hanks' lawyer James B. Donovan is given the unfortunate task of defending in an American court), and how strongly we as a nation uphold the Constitution of the United States.
The story has two defining purposes - the first is a discussion about the mindset of the American people and the paranoia of the 50s, surrounding the fears of atomic war and international espionage; the second is in building a tense drama revolving the release and trade of a Soviet spy for a captured American pilot. This kind of story, and the power of its themes, are the hallmarks of Steven Spielberg's film making. While the first part of the film has some of the thematic elements of courtroom drama found in a film like Amistad, Spielberg's Bridge of Spies really takes off in the second half with a more demanding approach (much akin to Munich) as Hanks' Donovan is hired by the CIA to negotiate the pilot's release, given his credentials as a non-government agent working for the United States. The drama in the latter half of the film is more powerful, and defines the power of the film, yet Spielberg still finds his way to insert his particular brand of humor and whimsy in a few scenes to alleviate the mood.
What really drew me to this film was how captivating it was despite being what many impatient people would call a "talky movie." The acting is powerful, as is the Oscar-winning team behind the scenes: Michael Kahn's editing is on-point as always (even at 79-years old), and the cinematography from Spielberg staple Janusz Kaminski has that new-age, crisp and bright Spielberg look to it (Kaminski has shot every Spielberg film since 1993s Schindler's List). This is also the first Spielberg film since The Color Purple that composer John Williams hasn't scored (the talents of ten-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman were hired this time around - smartly he did not try to emulate a Williams score, and focused more on what made him uniquely great in his Road to Perdition days).
Bridge of Spies starts as a courtroom period piece, but progresses into a minor espionage thriller. While this film is not one of the greatest films Spielberg has directed, it IS one of the best he's made in the past fifteen years. Not as darkly-dramatic as Munich, not as whimsical and often light-hearted as War Horse, and also not as deliberately slow-paced as Lincoln, Bridge of Spies is nontheless a very entertaining, captivating, and often educational motion picture on the Cold War era and how there aren't always clear-cut bad guys and good guys on either side. There are, usually, only people with different accents striving to a similar goal.
Bridge of Spies is sure to be nominated for a few Oscars. If I had a say, this film should easily be in the top ten for Best Picture, as would its screenplay. But, the real surprise is the authentic and flawless performance by stage actor Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. My only wish is that he had a little more screen time, because his character was so charismatic and likable that any time away from him was a shame (even amidst the great Tom Hanks).