By Adam Garcia
The 1-4-0: With #BridgeOfSpies, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks return to form with a Cold War spy drama that reminds audiences of true American ideals.
The Gist: Inspired by actual events, New York lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is tasked with defending captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). After saving Abel from the death penalty, Donovan is recruited by the CIA to negotiate the release of downed U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Donovan heads to Berlin, hoping to win the young man’s freedom through a prisoner exchange. But matters are complicated by the capture of American student Fredrick Pryor (Will Rogers) in East Berlin.
What Works: The first half of the film spends it time establishing Donovan as a devoted family man and insurance lawyer. With high morals and a willingness to stand up for what is right despite the wishes of his friends, family, government, and the public at large, Donovan is the sort of American hero that would have been played by Gregory Peck. (Which is appropriate as Peck once sought to adapt Donovan’s story.) The time spent establishing Donovan pays off significantly when he arrives in Berlin, where he pivots his skills as a lawyer into espionage, working against the interests of both the CIA and KGB in order to save the lives of three men.
From staging, to camera work, to overall pacing, Spielberg has a very clear vision for this story and is confident enough to spend the first ten minutes of the film without any real dialogue. And when the dialogue does start it crackles off the screen thanks to the excellent script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers. While Charman did the heavy lifting structuring the film, it is the Coen Brothers’ influence that is the most impactful. (Read our interview with Spielberg and the cast discussing the Coen Brothers’ influence on the film).
Hanks digs his teeth into the role of Donovan, enjoying the character’s high morals and whip-crack wit, while Rylance is excellent as the instantly likable and dryly funny Abel. Likewise the incredibly sharp screenplay elevates the rest of the supporting cast. Each character is distinct and three-dimensional, trading dialogue that elevates the film beyond a simple espionage drama to high-grade entertainment. Bridge of Spies also uses Donovan’s own words to underline its not-so-subtle political message about America’s treatment of prisoners of war, reminding us of an American ideal that’s been seemingly lost. Whether you agree with the message will depend on your political stance, but in the opinion of this reviewer, it is one that must be heard, now more than ever.
What Doesn’t Work: The film loses some momentum shortly after Abel’s trial, and effectively splits the story in two. While the film regains its narrative thrust once Donovan arrives in Berlin, that middle drag takes away from the film’s overall success.
Pay or Nay: Pay. The film is (not-so) surprisingly more fun than the other Cold War-era film of the year, Guy Ritchie’s Man from UNCLE, with dialogue that crackles off the screen and characters that are incredibly well developed. Added to that, the film’s poignant message about true American ideals makes it a can’t-miss film that will hopefully spur further conversation.
Rated: PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Screenplay: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Director(s): Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Scott Shepherd, Sebastian Koch, Billy Magnussen, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Domenick Lombardozzi, Michael Gaston
Distributor: Dreamworks Pictures
Film Genre: Thriller
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