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USA 2015
Directed by
Steven Spielberg
141 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
3.5 stars

Bridge Of Spies

Synopsis: During the Cold War, FBI agents in New York capture Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and arrange for insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to be his token defence attorney. With the inevitable loss of the case, Donovan manages to convince the judge (Dakin Matthews) to imprison rather than execute Abel as insurance against the possibility that he could be used as trade if the Russians were ever to capture an American spy. Sometime later, the Soviet Union shoots down a U2 spy plane and captures U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) sentencing him to 10 years in prison. Once again, Donovan is enlisted,  this time by the CIA to negotiate the exchange of prisoners but, when he learns that an American student, Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers) is being held in East Berlin he becomes determined to include the young man in the deal.

Tom Hanks is a genuine old-Hollywood-style movie star and there’s more than a touch of the ‘Gary Coopers’ about his portrayal of the true and good lawyer who refuses to compromise on the value of a human life just because that life belongs to the enemy or, in the case of Frederick Pryor, is considered less of an asset to the espionage apparatchiks. This kind of story – the righteous individual against a government that is turning a blind eye to the principles it should be upholding - is right up Steven Spielberg’s alley so it’s no surprise to see him at the helm and, although the events take place in the period immediately following the end of the Second World War, Bridge of Spies sits well with Spielberg’s growing canon of WW2 stories relating to individual efforts to pursue a higher cause than the popular and safer position, especially Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) - not forgetting his TV work with Hanks on Band of Brothers (2001)  and The Pacific (2010).

Hanks is, as always, a solid and dependable force on screen able to shift effortlessly between moments of virtuous morality and good-natured humour. Here, though, it’s the performance of Mark Rylance as the quietly spoken spy that shines. His honourable, urbane, subdued portrayal is compelling and the relationship that develops between Donovan and Abel is believable and engaging. In many ways it’s what makes the film which, for all its marvellous recreations of Cold War East and West Berlin, is much more a spy story than a spy thriller in the vein of Sixties classics like The Ipcress File (1965), or The Quiller Memorandum (1966).  Perhaps it’s the lack of that edge-of-the-seat thriller element that left me feeling more like I was along for the ride than actually being on the ride. Nevertheless, Bridge Of Spies is an entertaining and enjoyable film that more than makes up for the lack of nail-biting, life-threatening moments with its fascinating study of human nature and the interaction of complex personalities in difficult political situations.

Refreshingly, there are no two-dimensional bad guys here. In fact, there are no real bad guys at all. Even those who, from the American perspective, are the enemy are portrayed, through Donovan’s eyes, as ordinary people in difficult situations doing their jobs as best they can.  Perhaps it’s this character trait of evaluating each person on the basis of who they are and what they are trying to do rather than what they represent that makes Donovan such an astute and fearless negotiator.

Bridge of Spies is one of the rare occasions where Joel and Ethan Coen take a screenwriting credit but no directing credit. On balance, it would seem that Spielberg’s sentimentality has won out over the Coens' sharp and cynical style; but only just. Perhaps their influence is responsible for how underplayed this feels for a Spielberg film. Either way, as much as I enjoyed the film, it’s hard not to wonder how this story would have be told if the Coens had taken a directing credit as well.




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