REVIEW: Bridge of Spies

18 10 2015

Bridge of SpiesI’m young enough that I cannot remember a time when director Steven Spielberg’s name was not synonymous with cinematic excellence at the highest echelon. I am also of the age that I have never been able to experience the kind of film that earned him such a reputation in any manner other than through the lens of retrospection.

That is, until “Bridge of Spies” came along, the first Spielberg effort since 2005’s “Munich” that serves as an adequate calling card for a generation-defining artist.  Making the sort of mid-range budget ($40 million) adult drama that have all but gone the way of the dinosaur, he issues a strong reminder that his formidable skills should not be undervalued or underestimated.

It’s fitting, then, that this film should star Tom Hanks, another already minted national treasure whose cultural footprint often dwarfs the power of his work. While both director and actor could easily coast on their merits, neither does in “Bridge of Spies.” The film operates at an impeccably high level of craft and precision because Hanks and Spielberg flex their muscles so potently.  Calling it a return to form feels wrong since neither has precipitously declined, but this is clearly them at peak performance.

Hanks plays William Donovan, an idealistic Brooklyn lawyer given the thankless task of providing legal counsel in a sham trial meant as a PR play.  His client is Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel, a suspected Soviet spy captured at the peak of Cold War mania.  Donovan’s task recalls the central case in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and it’s a good thing that Hanks can channel Atticus Finch (pre-racism) so deftly.

Only a few actors could pull off this unironic, unashamed portrait of the nobility all Americans like to believe is woven into our national fabric.  Hanks, with his steady hand and calm resolve, makes a better case for the Constitution’s guiding light than anyone currently in public office.  In fact, many of them could learn a thing or two from Donovan regarding Edward Snowden, the Middle East, and immigration.

Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies

The trial makes for compelling drama, sure, but “Bridge of Spies” really kicks into high gear once it shifts towards the espionage element of the plot.  At first, the script from Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers introduces this storyline slowly, making the presence of spy pilot Frances Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) feel ancillary and distracting.  But soon enough, his purpose becomes expressly clear – his capture by Soviet forces provides an opportunity for a prisoner swap.

Once again, it’s Donovan to the rescue, sent unofficially to East Berlin to negotiate a personnel transfer.  Little does he know that he will expose rifts between the East Germans and their Soviet comrades as they begin construction of the Berlin Wall.  He further complicates matters with his idealism, attempting to manipulate both nations into bartering an uneven agreement that also secures the release of a wrongfully imprisoned student.

The geopolitical negotiations and backroom bartering do unfold at a somewhat languid pace, yet the intrigue and interest never wavers.  It’s almost as if Spielberg is quietly whispering to the audience, “Trust me, I know what I’m doing here.”  And he’s right to have such certitude.  “Bridge of Spies” exhibits a restraint and calm that could only come from a master filmmaker in no hurry to prove himself.  (Though the thrilling and wordless opening scene suggests he might still feel the need to rebel against his reputation as a loud director.)

It feels great to simply sit back, relax, and let the brilliance of an artist like Spielberg waft over us.  His unhurried pace allows us to appreciate every contribution to this movie, from the performances of Hanks and Rylance to the precision of the sound design and especially the sumptuous set design.  What an experience to soak in the work of a legend in real-time.  B+3stars

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2 responses

18 10 2015
Ricardo

Sweet Jesus, Spielberg, Hanks and a script by the Coen brothers?
I will watch this one day.

20 10 2015
Bob Wurtenberg

Great review Marshall. I really enjoyed this one myself. Even though this will probably not be a very memorable Spielberg film for everyone, it still showed his greatness and made you enjoy it from start to finish.

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