Bridge of Spies (2015) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language
Running Time: 141 min.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Dakin Matthews, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Will Rogers
Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay: Mark Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Review published October 18, 2015

Set starting in 1957, in the midst of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Phillips) stars as New York-based insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, a by-the-book guy.  Donovan is called upon by United States representatives to provide the legally defense for Rudolf Abel (Rylance, The Gunman), a longtime Brooklyn resident who has been accused of espionage for the Soviet Union for many years.  The United States feel it's an open-and-shut case, but Donovan still takes his role very seriously, unwilling to play patriot by undermining his client to provide information to the CIA, and the public at large begins to despise him for trying to defend a man for supplying information to a country that is threatening the U.S. with nuclear annihilation. 

Knowing that his client could get the death penalty for his alleged crimes should he be convicted, Donovan beseeches the already biased judge for leniency, citing that Abel would be good to have alive and incarcerated in case one of our spies ends up getting caught in a Communist country.  Donovan's insight bears fruit when a U-2 pilot named Powers (Stowell, Dolphin Tale 2) is shot down flying a recon mission in Russian airspace, and the U.S. wants him back before the Soviets manage to extract sensitive intel from him while he's in their custody.  Now's the time to play their trump card of Abel for Powers, and there's only one master negotiator they've come to trust to get the job done who wouldn't have information to give of his own: James Donovan.  However, Donovan threatens to muck up the works when he tries to get two political prisoners for one, requesting the release of an American student named Pryor (Rogers, A Good Marriage), who was captured behind the Berlin Wall.

Hanks, working under Steven Spielberg's (War Horse, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) direction for the fourth time, delivers the quality, finely nuanced portrayal you've come to expect every time out of the box, and there's perhaps no finer actor working today who can embody that old-fashioned spirit of a conscientious human being whose character has him always searching for the best possible outcome for those around him, even at the cost of his own reputation or relative safety.  Other actors portraying the Constitution-thumping boy scout might have come off just a hair too hokey, but Hanks makes his character's warmth and goodness not only believable, but also refreshingly different than most heroic protagonists in films today; he's a man who persuades you with reasoned arguments instead of sheer force.

Speaking of quality you expect, Bridge of Spies is another terrific effort from the ever-reliable Steven Spielberg, whose only flaw seems to be in keeping his run time from getting away from the smaller scope of the story.  Spielberg isn't new to biographical period piece political dramas, with Munich and Lincoln garnering Best Picture nominations, and all of them well over two hours in run time. They're so well presented, with painstaking detail to establish the story's time and place, it's hard to truly carp. Beautifully shot with a fantastic sense of mood by Janusz Kaminski (The Judge, War of the Worlds), who perfectly captures the granular, grey look of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it's a treat for the eyes.  It also has some of the best sound and Foley work I've heard in a film; I love all of the creaks of the wooden chairs as people sit on them, or the audible pressure exerted as people tread over hardwood floors.

The screenplay is from Joel and Ethan Coen (Unbroken, Inside Llewyn Davis), rewriting the first script by Mark Charman (Suite Francaise), and they do a marvelous job at applying sympathy to those caught in the spy game as people first, usually scared and without any particular axe to grind other than doing what they feel is their patriotic duty.  As with Spielberg's other political dramas, they're well set in the past, but they are still commenting, ever so subtly, on fundamental issues we wrangle with today. Such things as privacy, due process for foreign prisoners looking to harm the country, government-stoked fear and paranoia, the capability for hostility among normally polite people, and how ignoring the ideals we were founded upon in pursuit of quick justice can cost us so much more as an idealistically moral and proud nation -- it all speaks to many of the issues we wrangle with today in this era of the War on Terrorism.

Symbolism abounds, starting off with three images of Abel -- in a mirror, on a self-portrait, and the man himself -- suggesting not only the double life that he leads, but also the different perspectives we can have on the same person, depending on how we look at them.  That duality also extends to the use of coins, a hollowed one containing a secret message and another that contains a means for suicide -- which not only suggest the subversion of capitalism on the part of the Communists through a symbol of our wealth, as well as our own march to our own extinction in the pursuit of it, but it also reveals that the United States and the Soviet Union are two sides of the same coin, as well as the two sides of Berlin cut in half by the Wall, and later, two sides of a symmetrical bridge  -- mirror images and similar reflections.

Bridge of Spies isn't edgy or groundbreaking, with Spielberg content to tell a straightforward tale in a classic Hollywood tradition, seeing his role to craft a movie based directly on the story and characters at hand without great artistic flourishes and wild gimmicks.  As such, it may seem a bit slow and talky to viewers who are looking for great action set pieces to bolster their Cold War blockbusters, but outside of the plane crash sequence, Spielberg keeps most of what we see on the real in terms of humanistic drama.  The first half is a bit more assured than the last, involving the ramp-up to the courtroom action, and the thorny legal implications, much more than the prisoner swap negotiations and Spielberg's most obvious attempts to shore up emotional beats, but for every step into syrupy territory, Bridge of Spies tempers with two scenes both pithy and assured.

Intelligent, calculated, measured, and impeccably designed, this is what a seasoned filmmaker can bring to the world of cinema that newer, flashier directors can scarcely tough.  He's like observing a master chess player in an era of video game-worthy theatrics.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo