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Review: 'Bridge of Spies' among Spielberg's best

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(8 out of 10 stars)

(141 minutes) 

(Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.)

The times are a-changing, as they say, because when was the last time the American movie-going audience missed a Steven Spielberg movie opening?  Generally, Spielberg movie premieres generate more buzz than another naked Kardashian, but Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” opened last weekend in third place in box office revenues behind “The Martian” (already in theaters for 3 weeks), and the kid’s movie “Goosebumps.”

It’s unfortunate that more people are not seeing this film because “Bridge of Spies” is Spielberg’s best work since the vastly underrated “Munich” in 2005. Moreover, I think this movie ranks right up there with other Cold War movie classics like “Hunt for Red October” and “Thirteen Days.”

But I am getting ahead of myself. “Bridge of Spies” is set in 1957 at the very height of the Cold War and tells the story of James Donovan, masterfully played by Tom Hanks, who is an insurance attorney recruited to defend Rudolf Abel, a low-level, yet high-profile Soviet spy who has been captured in Brooklyn, and Donovan’s involvement in Abel’s eventual release in exchange for U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962.

Wrapped around a five-year biopic snippet of Donovan’s public life, Spielberg does a stunning job of embracing the warmth of the heady June and Ward Cleaver days of the 1950s. He expertly wraps that nostalgia into the angst of potential war with Soviet Russia that permeated American lives, giving the moviegoer an extraordinary look at what it was like to grow up during the Cold War and everything that came with it—from children worried about “ducking and covering” to adults robbing others of their personal freedoms in an effort to crush the red, communist menace.

Hanks, as you would expect, is brilliant in his role. Once again, the Spielberg/Hanks duo gives us another seemingly effortless story that is compelling, layered, uplifting of the human condition.  

Finally starting to show his almost 60 years of age, Hanks plays Donovan with a Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant style and flair. His character is written as a red-blooded, patriotic, and overly idealistic American attorney who believes, rightly so, in doing the right thing every time. The easy and obvious choice for Hanks would have been to play him as hokey and stiffly serious, but instead he gives us the Hanks charm and wit that makes him always so credible and likeable. It is not an Academy-award performance, simply because he has had better scripted parts. But it is a performance that continues to have him mentioned in the same small group of best film actors of all-time.

The supporting cast, as in any Spielberg film, is equally as good. Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is played by British stage actor, Mark Rylance, and his performance is alone worth the price of admission. His understated delivery and naively innocent expressions shows us the human side of warriors (even without guns, these men who fought the Cold War were soldiers and this fact plays a big part in this story). As an aside, if you have not seen Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the British mini-series “Wolf Hall” you are missing an exceptional piece—it is that good. 

The other scripted parts of the cast are small and you see a shockingly old Alan Alda in a nothing part, but Scott Shepherd as the primary CIA handler of Donovan is the standout in a standout cast.

However, everything that makes a Spielberg movie a Spielberg movie is there. The script, penned initially by relative newcomer Matt Charman, and then fixed and re-written by Joel and Ethan Coen—yes, of “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” fame—was for the most part tight, often witty, and intelligent.  The production captured the language and romance of the era and just when I was afraid it was going to turn into a Frank Capra-type courtroom film about doing-the-right-thing and flag-waving, it did not. Those themes were there, the words were said and Spielberg made his point, but he did it in a fresh, innovative manner.

Expansive and lavish sets are a hallmark of Spielberg films, and under the expertise of long-time Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List”), this is visually stunning movie. The texture of the shots indoors and the stark and bleak sets of East Berlin are rich and detailed. Even 12 years after the Battle of Berlin, the Russians left their quarter of Berlin in ruins, and that extraordinary detail is not missed.

There were some historical elements that were simply wrong, and I can be somewhat forgiving for the sake of Hollywood drama. The Berlin Wall went up almost overnight in August of 1961, not in February 1962 during the Abel-Powers exchange as the movie depicts. Nor were the East Germans in a state of relative revolt either prior to or during its construction—again as the movie suggested—but instead it was a measured response to the “brain-drain” of young, educated individuals emigrating to the West.

On the downside, the film did drag ever so briefly in the short time between Abel’s trial and sentencing as Spielberg and the Coen brothers explored Red paranoia to a small extent, but it quickly moved past it.

Those minor details aside, this is a well-constructed movie that is an entertaining visual feast with a strongly compelling story that moves its plot forward expediently, and documents an important time of our history. 

As the Russians again saber-rattle in 2015 and the Nazi-like ISIS terrorize the Middle East, it is an important film that reminds us of our history, and a time period in many ways that we do not want to repeat.

Go see this movie this weekend. It is well worth your time and movie dollar.

I give this film 8 out of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!