Friday, October 16, 2015


In the 1950’s, there was war raging between the United States and what was the Soviet Union. Not a war of bullets and bombs and rockets, but a war of information with each side spying on each other in an endless world-wide chess match; trying to figure out who was going to do what and when. Known as the Cold War, it is an often overlooked, yet fascinating chapter in the history books; a chapter now opened by Steven Spielberg’s BRIDGE OF SPIES.

Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance attorney in New York City who is asked to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is suspected of spying on the U.S. for the Russians. Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U.S. Air Force pilot, is shot down over Russia in his U2 spy plane while covertly photographing. Donovan then travels to Russia to negotiate a trade.

BRIDGE OF SPIES is a film of two acts. The first act deals primarily with Donovan’s efforts to provide a fair trial for Abel. The odds are stacked against him, as most of the country, which includes the press and the presiding judge, have made up their minds about the man accused of spying for the enemy. Donovan’s decisions to tirelessly defend his client puts himself and his family in danger, and in this act some early groundwork is laid concerning his resolve and commitment as a lawyer.

Once the plane is shot down and the Russians now have an American prisoner, the film shifts into another gear. A much lower gear, in fact. With Donovan in Russia now stuck as a human ping-pong ball between the U.S. and Russian governments, BRIDGE OF SPIES becomes a talk-a-thon with all interested parties chatting away, looking to see which side blinks first. It’s a slow-burning film with no fistfights or cliffhangers, and it feels like it should be a very dry experience, but it’s far from that. Director Steven Spielberg, working from a script with contributions from Joel and Ethan Coen, somehow makes the negotiating table, and the eventual exchange, seem like the most interesting thing ever to grace the screen. Tensions are high but the pacing is brisk, and the endless dialogue exchanges crackle off the screen. There is a lot going on in BRIDGE OF SPIES with many interested parties over the prisoners and a lot of characters to keep track of, but it is clear and concise, and all the while the focus is never taken away from Donovan and his commitment to his client.

Spielberg photographs 1950’s New York beautifully. Despite using his newly preferred de-saturated look, the film is always interesting to look at thanks to his exquisite camera-work and talent for resurrecting an America that has been lost for ages. BRIDGE OF SPIES is a true trip back in time, and those who remember the 1950’s with great fondness will devour this movie with a lot of love.

Tom Hanks is at his best as Jim Donovan. Although he doesn’t break any new ground, his frustrations in his insurmountable task are always felt, and at his age, makes a very entertaining grumpy old man. Speaking of old men, Alan Alda shows up as Donovan’s boss, and even though it’s a treat to see Hanks and Alda share the screen, Alda doesn’t have much behind his voice and seems struggling to keep up. Amy Ryan turns in a nice performance as Mrs. Donovan, and Mark Rylance is excellent throughout.

The finale, in which Spielberg somehow makes the simple task of two men walking over a bridge one of the most pulse-pounding moments in spy films, ends the film on a very satisfying note. BRIDGE OF SPIES is wildly entertaining despite not one shot being fired, and as an often-overlooked and nearly obscure moment in history, shows its significance. Steven Spielberg, here in his 27th feature film, shows all of the talent and patience that his years have given him, and is a wonderful bridge to cross.



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