Steven Spielberg’s immersive and emotionally compelling period drama is a reminder of why we love to go to the movies.
By Ankit Ojha on October 16, 2015

Based on actual events, “Bridge of Spies” is directed by Steven Spielberg (“Lincoln,” 2012) and stars Tom Hanks (“Captain Phillips,” 2013) as lawyer James B. Donovan, who takes up a then first-of-its-kind case by defending the captured Soviet espionage suspect “Rudolf Abel” (Mark Rylance; “The Other Boleyn Girl,” 2008). Amid the rising harassment of the Donovans due to fighting for Abel’s right to a fair trial, James is unofficially tasked with negotiating the freedom of imprisoned CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers (“Whiplash,” 2014) in exchange for Abel. Obviously, things aren’t as clear-cut as they seem, and Donovan may have much more to fear than a botched prisoner-exchange op.

If “Empire of the Sun” (1987), “Schindler’s List” (1993), and “Munich” (2005) prove anything, it’s that Spielberg isn’t new to helming the period drama. More importantly, however, his period films exemplify the importance of technical craft in a storytelling medium that depends entirely on visual language. Using the strengths of cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (“The Judge,” 2014)—a regular in the director’s work—Spielberg immerses the audience from the first shot, which seems to hyper-fixate on a contemplative painter. Alone in a hotel room, he’s working on something while his mind reflects on something else. As the camera dollies away from a close-up to a mid-shot, it’s revealed that what we are looking at is a reflection of his face.

Bridge of Spies
“So like, why’d you call me Standing Man? I don’t even like standing!” // (Left-right) Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in a still from Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a Walt Disney Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Fox 2000 Pictures, and Amblin Entertainment film.

Abel (as the painter is revealed to be later) uses his reflection to paint himself. While it could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the persona could be a projected reflection of someone’s inner self, Abel’s process of painting a self-portrait could also show how he can depend on nobody else but himself. For all the excellent dialogue-driven scenes throughout “Bridge of Spies”—and there is a lot here, all of them excellently crafted by the Coen brothers—it’s these quiet moments that depend solely on visual framing that completely grab your attention. Kamiński’s attention to detail shines through, not just in movement, but in deliberate framing that turns the work of Spielberg and the Coens into a fully immersive experience.

The evocative stylings of composer Thomas Newman (“Skyfall,” 2012)—who stepped in when Spielberg regular John Williams (“Star Wars,” 1977) left due to a health issue—end up being a significant component of why each scene works. Newman’s music for “Bridge of Spies” ranges from tense to mellow, elevating the film to dazzling emotional highs and—by proxy—making me wonder if the director would ever collaborate with him on any future projects that require Newman’s specific brand of dreamlike soundscapes.

It helps that the film has a stacked cast too. Hanks pitches in a powerhouse act as Donovan. Supporting him is Rylance, with whom he shares some of the film’s most moving scenes, and Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife Mary (“Win Win,” 2011), who ends up being the emotional core that grounds James. Other excellent character actors include Scott Shephard (“Side Effects,” 2013), Sebastian Koch (“A Good Day to Die Hard,” 2013), and Billy Magnussen (“The East,” 2013), all of whom deliver knockout performances.

“Bridge of Spies” is a classic by Steven Spielberg. It’s an excellent, immersive drama film that’s a feast for the senses—thanks to Kamiński and Newman. Boasting a deliberate and measured direction of tack-sharp screenplay, it smoothly coasts through themes of privilege, rights, and repute, balancing each in its subtext without making them feel like incomplete lip-service throwaways. More than anything else, the level of dedication to the craft and the all-around mastery over it begs your visit to the big screen. Spielberg’s newest isn’t just among this year’s best; it also reminds you why we love watching movies.