“Bridge of Spies” Movie Review

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     Steven Spielberg’s meticulously produced and flawlessly acted spy thriller “Bridge of Spies” plays much like his most recent effort in creating a feature based on a real life historical figure, that being 2012 Best Picture nominee “Lincoln”.  The most significant difference here is the absence of a truly dynamic, scene stealing performance from the film’s lead as Daniel Day-Lewis provided with his Academy Award winning turn.  Instead, Tom Hanks turns in exactly the kind of performance we have come to expect after years of playing a number of characters of whom we can all relate with his everyman charm and subdued delivery.  Most may go into “Bridge of Spies” with the presumption it will be an action thriller along the lines of a “Bourne” or “Bond” film, but this isn’t the case.  Each and every scene is fully dependent on dialogue, setting, and mood to create the tension necessary for the situations depicted to matter to the audience.  And Spielberg does this with his usual mastery of the material, transporting us to a time when everyone was on pins and needles not because of what had happened, but what could potentially happen.

     At the height of the Cold War between the United States and Russia, each country’s most important mission seemed to be finding out what the other was doing and what the other was thinking.  It was clear to both sides each had the capability to destroy the world several times over with a substantial nuclear arsenal, and the differences in governmental style (Democracy versus Communism) only fueled an already tenuous situation between the super powers.  When the FBI discovers and captures a Russian spy in New York City, it immediately becomes a national and international story everyone follows closely.  This comes as no surprise as adults and children had been conditioned to believe the Russians were prepared to use nuclear weapons to ensure Communist supremacy, as Spielberg shows us a sequence in which middle school aged children are drilled to their horror on how to react to such an attack.  The captured spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), becomes the temporary face of this evil in newspapers and on the evening news and yet it is realized he must be given an adequate defense while answering to the charges against him in a court of law.  In addition, the Russians themselves are concerned as to whether or not the Americans will be successful in getting Abel to crack and reveal the secrets he possesses. 

     In a sort of “A Few Good Men” type of moment, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is assigned to the case which makes about as much sense as Tom Cruise’s Daniel Kaffee being assigned to defend two Marines in a murder case with himself having never actually been to trial.  In that film, we find out he was likely assigned for just that reason.  So the case would never see the inside of the courtroom as the two defendants are convinced it’s best to agree to a plea.  Perhaps that was the rational here as well.  Donovan deals with insurance claims, not the defense of international criminals who if found guilty may be sentenced to the death penalty.  Donovan, as portrayed by Hanks, is a no nonsense by the book sort of attorney who has clearly been underestimated by those who thought he would only provide a minimal defense for Abel.  Donovan, playing to character, has other ideas and challenges the search warrant executed by the FBI and looks to have the evidence against his client thrown out.  Despite his best efforts; however, Abel is convicted of his crimes as Donovan faces a national outrage to his continual arguments in favor of Abel’s right to due process.  It seems everyone on the government’s side, including the judge presiding over the case, came to the same conclusion long before any kind of trial began.

     In a minor victory, Donovan succeeds in keeping Abel from getting the death penalty as the judge instead rules for a 30 year sentence in prison.  In a bit of irony being as though Donovan works in the insurance industry, he convinces the judge behind closed doors that just as we have caught a Russian spy in the U.S., the Russians could easily catch one of our own on their soil.  It then stands to reason, wouldn’t it be wise to have someone who could be used in a trade as a sort of insurance policy?  Donovan proves to be if nothing else a prophet since the story shifts to a manned spy plane mission in which Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russia and is captured, convicted, and imprisoned for the same crimes as Abel.  It doesn’t take long for Donovan to be recruited by the same CIA goons who attempted to sway him while defending Abel to broker a deal between Russia and the U.S. that would have Abel traded for Powers.

     One of the great things about a film like “Bridge of Spies” is how many of the events we all read in history books is now brought to vivid and sometimes horrific life, which gives us a well researched idea as to how people reacted and what they had to endure.  The skill and craft in which Spielberg and his team present this material is undeniable as the detail and atmosphere of the sets exude a constant sense of uncertainty for the characters involved.  In the 1957 timeframe in which the film is set, we see the divide between West and East Berlin at the exact moments the Berlin wall was actually being built, as people desperately attempted to flee.  A sub plot involving an American student trapped on the wrong side seems to serve as yet another opportunity for Donovan to shine in circumstances he clearly has no business to.  And yet, some of the film’s best moments feature Donovan’s ability to play against type when he’s dealing with adversaries clearly more skilled in covert meetings of this magnitude.  Perhaps that’s what catches the Russian and East German negotiators off guard as his innocence and vulnerability allows him to effectively negotiate without begin hampered by the immense egos in play.  It should go without mentioning these well written scenes come courtesy of first time feature scribe Matt Charman working with “Fargo” vets Joel and Ethan Coen.  If there’s any criticism at all, it might be asking whether or not the overall story is strong enough for a feature film, but that would be nit picking since the level of execution in every facet of the filmmaking process is one few directors are capable of attaining.  GRADE: B+