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Josh Reviews Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies, the new film from Steven Spielberg, spans events in the Cold War from 1957-1962.  The film opens with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in Brooklyn, NY.  Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who primarily deals with insurance, agrees to serve as Abel’s legally required defense.  Despite the wishes of many around him, Donovan attempts to give Abel the best defense he is capable of, and the two men gradually bond.  In 1960, when a U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured, Donovan finds himself playing negotiator/mediator between the United States and U.S.S.R. governments, as he attempts to arrange a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

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Bridge of Spies is not only a fascinating and compelling film, but, like The Martian (which I reviewed last week), it’s also an important one.  The Martian is set in the future in outer space, and Bridge of Spies is set decades ago during the Cold War, but both are films with important things to say about our world and our culture today.  While The Martian champions the value of science and intelligence, Bridge of Spies champions the importance of the rule of law and the rights that all men and women deserve.  In two critical scenes in the film, Tom Hanks gets to deliver powerfully written and marvelously performed speeches that spell out this message succinctly and effectively.  In the first, after being stopped in the rain by a C.I.A. agent who asserts that there is “no rule-book” in these dangerous times, Donovan counters that the Constitution and the rule of law is their rule-book, and that it is their adherence to the values and rights set out in the Constitution that unites him, a man of Irish descent, with agent Hoffman, a man of German descent, as Americans.  In the second, we hear Donovan argue Abel’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court, declaring that though Abel might be their foe, that what sets America apart is our values and our adherence to those values and the rule of law, even when in conflict with an enemy.  Both scenes are powerful declarations of the principles behind which the film stands, and both, I think, are important messages for Americans to hear today.  The issues we face today are no less difficult that those faced in the fifties and sixties; our enemies around the globe no less fierce and intractable; but that is no excuse to abandon our values and our principles out of expediency or because we believe we have no other choice.

Once again, Spielberg and Hanks prove to be a winning combination.  Hank’s inherent likability and nobility are on full display in this film as Jim Donovan, a man who stands up as fiercely for what he believes is right as I think most of us would like to believe we would.  Mr. Hanks is marvelous in the film, honorable and intelligent, the best possible version of an American man.  Mr. Hanks has such a wonderful naturalism that he’s able to play an “every-man” even while taking a number of quite heroic actions over the course of the film.  He’s also able to take some of the film’s important speeches (most notably the two I mentioned above) and deliver them flawlessly.  It’s a joy to watch.

I am not at all familiar with Mark Rylance, but he is a revelation as the Soviet spy Abel.  I have no idea how much of his portrayal is based on fact and how much has been created by Mr. Rylance along with Mr. Spielberg, but his performance is extraordinary, totally unique and gripping.  It was a far cry from what I had expected from the role of the captured spy.  Mr. Rylance’s Abel is gentle and soft-spoken, and yet firm as steel in his loyalty to his homeland.  The scenes between Mr. Rylance and Mr. Hanks are the best in the film.

As always for a Steven Spielberg film, the supporting cast is dynamite.  Alan Alda is a lot of fun in a few brief scenes as the head of Donovan’s law firm.  Amy Ryan (The Wire) is terrific as Donovan’s wife Mary, making a full meal out of a character who doesn’t have much to actually do in the film.  (She’s great in the whole film, but she absolutely nails the critical moment at the end of the film when she discovers what her husband has actually been up to while he was away.)  Scott Shephard is solid as the CIA agent who is assigned to tail Donovan and later to work with him in Berlin.  Another veteran of The Wire, Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc!) is great in his small role as the agent who first captures Abel.

Bridge of Spies was written by the Coen Brothers, along with Matt Charman.  The script is excellent, though while I was initially intrigued, when this film was first announced, by what the combination of Spielberg and the Coen Brothers would produce, this film doesn’t “feel” at all to me like the Coen Brothers’ work.  There’s little of their unique tone to be found here.  The story is told far more “straight” than what is to be found in most Coen Brothers’ films.  I’d love to know more about the behind-the-scenes story of who-wrote-what in what we see in the finished film.  Regardless, the script is solid and combined with Mr. Spielberg’s unending talent behind the camera, the result is a terrific, gripping film.

Some other thoughts:

* I’d wondered if Mr. Spielberg’s tendency to end his films with a little extra dollop of schmaltz would come into play here, and it did in a small way.  Donovan has a great line on the bridge, after Abel tells him that he gave him one of his paintings, when Donovan replies that he didn’t give Abel anything.  It’s a nice moment of levity in a tense scene and, of course, we understand that all of Donovan’s superhuman efforts over the course of the entire film have been his gift to Abel.  So just in case we didn’t understand, they have Abel reply that “this is your gift,” which made me roll my eyes.  Yeah, I know, we get it.  Then, just in case any idiot missed it, they have Abel repeat the line a second time!!  Blech.

* I also could have done without the score in the scene about halfway through the film when Abel finally opens up to Donovan, after questioning why Donovan had never asked him if he was actually guilty of espionage.

* Speaking of the score, is this the first Spielberg film in thirty years not to have been scored by John Williams?  I wonder why!!  Thomas Newman’s score didn’t leave any impact on me (except for that one slightly intrusive moment that I just mentioned.)

* I don’t love the film’s generic title.  Apparently it comes from the non-fiction book by Gary Whittell, on which the film is partially based.

* I wonder why Donovan’s young aide seemed like such a major role at the start of the film (including the scene in which he joins toe Donovan family at dinner and seems to share a meaningful look with Jim Donovan’s eldest daughter) only to vanish completely from the film after that?  I suspect there are some scenes on the cutting room floor.

* I criticized that “this is your gift” moment a moment ago, but otherwise let me say that Mr. Spielberg nailed the film’s ending.  I love the way Donovan’s return home is handled, and the way we can see on the train ride — shot cleverly to parallel a similar train-ride he took across Berlin — that Donovan has been changed by his experiences.

As always, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks prove to be a hugely winning combination.  Bridge of Spies isn’t one of Mr. Spielberg’s greatest films, but that doesn’t stop it from being a hugely entertaining, gripping story that is remarkably well-told in every aspect.  It’s a great Cold War drama/thriller and, as I argued at the beginning of this review, it’s an important film whose story, and the moral lessons that story contains, is hugely relevant to our world today.

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