Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violence and brief Strong Language
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson & Peter McRobbie
BRIDGE OF SPIES sounded like a stellar project right from the beginning. You have Steven Spielberg directing Tom Hanks in a script written by the Coen brothers. It sounds like this film couldn’t possibly go wrong even if it tried. Based on a fascinating true story and set during the height of the Cold War, BRIDGE OF SPIES is an enthralling piece of cinema. That’s made even more impressive seeing that the film is made up of a bunch of conversations and people walking to conversations. If this doesn’t sound the least bit intense, then don’t worry, because you’ll be surprised at how suspenseful conversations can be when they involve warring nations and negotiations that might save lives.
James Donovan is a gifted insurance lawyer living in Brooklyn. He’s very good at his job, so good that his superiors want him to defend a man who they believe no one else could possibly craft a defense for. Donovan’s latest client is Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy. Unsurprisingly, the evidence is overwhelmingly against Abel and mob mentality is calling for the man to be hanged. Donovan tries his very best to keep Abel from getting the death penalty. That turns out to be both a wise and humane move as Russia has captured an American spy of their own. Pilot Gary Powers was shot down in a specialized plane traveling through Soviet territory. So, taking his safety and life into his own hands, Donovan travels across the dangerous borders of East Germany and West Berlin to negotiate a trade of Abel for Powers.
Unsurprisingly, Tom Hanks delivers yet another stellar performance. The man knows how to emote on a convincing level and he does the same thing here as James Donovan. You can feel that Donovan is a man who just wants to do what’s right and the compassionate side to his character makes him charming to watch. This character can also lay down an articulate verbal beatdown on certain people in this movie who need a good tongue-lashing. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen Mark Rylance in anything that stood out to me, but he’s great as Rudolf Abel. Even though he’s a Soviet spy, I couldn’t bring myself to hate this character. He seems quietly dignified and resigned to his fate, whatever that eventual fate might be. Next to Hanks, I’d argue that Rylance steals the show, even though his scenes are far more plentiful in the first half of the film. The rest of the performances are stellar, but I feel the only other major players come in Austin Stowell as Gary Powers and Scott Shepherd as a CIA agent who is aiding Donovan in his negotiations.
As far as setting goes, Steven Spielberg captures an era where it seems like it was impossible to feel safe. As idealistically peaceful as certain movies and TV shows paint the 1950’s, it’s more realistic to believe that people were frequently worried that Russia was going to bomb the country or invade small towns. Spielberg successfully gets across the sense of unease that seems to have been a constant during the Cold War. I believed that I was watching an authentic recreation of a certain period in recent history and that becomes even more apparent when the movie goes to Germany for a majority of its second half. It’s all beautifully shot and pain-staking attention to detail seems to have been put into every frame.
This constant tension also lives within the Coens’ dialogue. Though there are a handful of funny moments and good quotes, I found myself fully engaged in watching a number of different people simply have conversations for two hours about the Cold War and swapping spies. Every time I heard that the plan had hit a “snag” or had a “wrinkle,” I found myself thinking “How are they going to solve this mess now?” It became an automatic response for the plight of these characters and that alone shows that the story was insanely compelling.
Spielberg arguably doesn’t go as far as he could have in depicting the harsh conditions of Berlin (this is PG-13 after all), but there’s a sense of constant danger here. A couple of speeches made by Hanks in the opening act border on becoming melodramatic, usually revolving around the repeated question of “What makes us American?” However, these are two minor complaints in an otherwise excellent film. BRIDGE OF SPIES is another winner for Spielberg, Hanks, and the Coen brothers. I would love to see these four talented names unite once again for something special in the future. BRIDGE OF SPIES is mature filmmaking that should deeply move those who are up for a movie that’s on the more serious side of things.