Steven Spielberg, with his old comrade Tom Hanks as his leading man, has made his best film for over a decade with this Cold War thriller. Hanks stars as James Donovan, a lawyer reluctantly forced to defend a Soviet Spy (Mark Rylance, in fine form), and then sent to East Germany to exchange him for a captured American pilot.
It’s reminiscent of a movie from another time – Hanks, here at his homely best, is a modern day James Stewart, and the strong influence of Frank Capra on Spielberg is apparent. The film is more It’s a Wonderful Life than The Lives of Others.
The cinematography, courtesy of Spielberg’s superb regular collaborator, Janusz Kaminski, is integral to the film’s nostalgic feel. Brooklyn is seen through a sepia filter, burnished in the warm hues of a Howard Hawks or Victor Fleming picture. East Berlin, on the other hand, is painted in the gloomy grey-and-black of 50’s Film Noir. There is one shot, where Hanks cowers beneath his umbrella before the camera slants upwards to reveal a CIA agent looming behind him, that may one day be iconic.
Stripped of both the suspense and violence you might expect from a Cold War thriller, the film instead follows the pattern of a courtroom drama. Correspondingly, the best scenes are conversational, with Hanks discussing the prisoner transfer with his (respectively) conniving and hapless Soviet and East German counterparts. It’s easy to be cynical about Spielberg, and dismiss his films as kitschy melodrama, but it’s just as easy to forget that he’s one of only a few blockbuster directors with a consistent moral focus. Whilst sometimes this focus has been trite and annoyingly binary, here it is gentle and unobtrusive.
The nihilistic compromise of realpolitik is discarded in favour of the simple virtues of courage, friendship and decency. It takes a director of a certain stature to find optimism in such potentially grim material, but Spielberg manages it. He successfully pulls off the trick of removing a political thriller from the realm of the political and placing it firmly in the realm of the interpersonal and the emotional. It is a remarkable trick.
Image: Romain Dubois; Wikimedia Commons