Review: “Bridge of Spies”

In his latest post, Nathan Blake reviews Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks.

In the latest historical drama from director, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who suddenly became a key player in the Cold War when he was asked to negotiate the release of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who was captured by the Soviet Union after his U.S. spy plane was shot down in 1960. Donovan is selected for the negotiations after serving as the defense for Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). His assignment is to go to Berlin and trade Abel for Powers. That mission is complicated by the capture of American economics student Frederick Pryor, which leads Donovan to clash with the CIA over his insistence to free both men.

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Coming off a more emotional role in Captain Phillips, Hanks is understated here. It works. The script, co-written by Joel & Ethan Coen, provides Hanks with many opportunities to hint at his obvious comedic abilities. But it’s Rylance who leaves the biggest impression as Abel. Almost certain to snag an Oscar nomination, his performance helps balance out the serious subject matter. His habit of shrugging off worry with the oft repeated line “would it help?” is the best line ever to sum up the Cold War. With the potential of nuclear war threatening the world the line perfectly describes the only mindset to have in such a situation without going mad from fear.

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The script’s humor gives the film a lighter feel than most of Spielberg’s other historical efforts. The 140 minute running time breezes past not only from the tension but because the film is fun. While Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) found subtle and amusing pleasures in the anecdotes of Honest Abe, this script finds frequent humor in the absurdities of war, spying and politics. That said, Bridge of Spies probably will not please those who are eager for Spielberg to return to the fantasy and action-adventure films of his earlier career. They will have to wait until his next two films; The BFG and Ready Player One.
Adding to the breeziness of this thriller is the reliably stellar work of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. While his impressive work in Lincoln demanded shotsfar more static, here he returns to and even improves upon the long tracking shots that marked much of his previous work with Spielberg. The composition is just as beautiful even when the imagery includes the construction of the Berlin Wall and a crumbling city split in two by politics and war. When the film unleashes its few brief action sequences, they are quite memorable. A shooting into an occupied living room is probably the most realistic I’ve seen a movie attempt in terms of sound perspective and making the viewer feel like they are there, the bullets flying at them, from an unseen source.

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

They should also start preparing for Oscar night.
Coming away from the film, its story is just as much about the world today as the Cold War crisis nearly 60 years ago. Chris Mathews already attracted some controversy with a segment lauding the film for its depiction of genuine, logical patriotism over blind hatred towards the enemy. The argument is that the U.S. is not weakened when it assures that even those who work with other governments to potentially cause us harm are granted due process. The film provides a real example of when applying due process to an enemy agent ended up benefiting our country in the long term. That is certainly an argument Chris Mathews would want to focus on to attack rival Fox News and those who would argue certain enemies are too dangerous to be entitled to the legal process granted to American citizens.
It is through Donovan’s insistence on bringing home both Powers and Pryor that the film makes its boldest statement. Here, the script, and dialogue likely scribed in revisions by Joel & Ethan Coen, are not subtle in pointing out the CIA’s overall disregard for what happens to Pryor. As an economics student, his rescue is not dramatic. How appealing would news of his rescue, at the expense of Mark Pryor’s, be as a headline? He is not the same kind of American hero as Lt. Powers. Bridge of Spies ask viewers to question their, and the government’s, codes as to who is a hero and why one life gets prioritized over another. Although the film’s message has been described by many, including Chris Mathews, as some form of comment on patriotism. But to a greater extent, it is about fairness. James Donovan is posited as the example of morality and determination that the U.S. government, and its citizens, should strive for in terms of how we treat our own citizens, as well as those from other nations.
Bridge of Spies is in theaters now.
-Nathan Blake
Bridge of Spies
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell, Amy Ryan, and Alan Alda
141 minutes
Rated PG-13
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
United States
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