The lighting in Stephen Spielberg’s recent spy thriller Bridge of Spies is intrusive. There are the hints of lens flare here and there that we’ve all be inoculated against with the films of J.J. Abrams, but it doesn’t stop there. Looking out the windows of any scene taking place indoors it’s hard to tell if there even is an outside. Light blares through windows, obscuring the world at large and casting the characters in a white glow. Even during the film’s nocturnal climax the presence of harsh lighting is persistent.
It’s a bold choice for a film about spies and the Cold War, but then Bridge of Spies isn’t a typical espionage yarn. It’s less about government secrets, double agents and impossible missions and more about that dull, essential piece of tradecraft – keeping up appearances.
A spy who doesn’t keep up appearances will be caught. A court that doesn’t keep up appearances will be condemned. A prisoner who doesn’t keep up appearances will be disowned. A government that doesn’t keep up appearances has the potential to instigate nuclear war.
The characters, and institutions they represent, in Bridge of Spies all have appearances to keep up, some truthful and some not. Whether it’s a lack of involvement, an illusion of justice or an iron resolve under pressure the characters keeping up these appearances are all doing so under the harshest scrutiny – the Cold War paranoia of all out nuclear annihilation that colors their every move like blinding light.
The players in Bridge of Spies have to act under the assumption that the other team not only has their hand hovering over a big red button, but assumes their team is doing the same.
Bridge of Spies isn’t what you’d expect from a Cold War thriller, least of all because it trades in the shadowy world of cinematic espionage for one bathed in light. It doesn’t really concern itself with the typical high-stakes, high-tension tropes of spy films. Bridge of Spies is much more interested in the frantic webbed feet that go into making a swan look graceful as it glides across a lake.