Bridge of SpiesReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/19/15 05:02:17
For reasons known only to the marketing departments of the three studios involved, the promotion for "Bridge of Spies" seems to barely mention that it's directed by Steven Spielberg and has a screenplay co-written by Ethan & Joel Coen, and either individually would be of note, but them working together is kind of a big deal. Maybe it's because it doesn't look like a big deal, or the typical sort of thing either Spielberg or the Coens are thought of as doing. Although, really, they both tend to just make excellent movies rather than specializing in any particular genre, and that's what they've done here.It starts with Soviet spy Rudof Abel (Mark Rylance) leaving his Brooklyn apartment, retrieving something from a dead drop, and soon getting caught. Wanting to make sure that Abel is seen to have a fair trial, the government recruits lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him. There's never any doubt of the outcome, but while the unexpectedly dedicated Donovan is taking the matter to the supreme court, pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is being recruited to fly the U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory - and when he's shot down, someone reaches out to Donovan from the other side of the iron curtain to negotiate an exchange. By the time he arrives in Berlin, there's a wrinkle - American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) has been caught in the wrong part of Berlin as the wall is going up.
For fans of Cold War spycraft, that segment that kicks everything off is a little delight as the perspective shifts from Abel doing small things that might go unnoticed to a dragnet of FBI agents trying to keep track of one man in a gray suit and hat in the subway of 1957 New York City. Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and editor Michael Kahn - a team that has worked together for over twenty years - shift perspectives in this shell game masterfully, and it's just the first of several sequences that are far more elaborate than a viewer might immediately recognize. Many directors making action movies would love to include a centerpiece as good as the U-2 being shot down, for instance, and it's a bit of color here.
Spielberg and company do an impressive job of switching from one thing to another throughout the entire film, whether it be via cheeky cuts where a character seems to answer the question posed by someone in another part of the world or using the first hour to build up just how thoroughly anti-communist hysteria had taken hold even among those not prone to yelling and sneering. It also lets the filmmakers establish an intriguing balance where Donovan has personal and altruistic motives without either overwhelming the film.
That's the exact combination of motivations that makes Donovan a terrific role for Tom Hanks. Donovan is clearly an intelligent man from his first appearance arguing the semantics of an insurance settlement with another lawyer, with just the sort of unassuming openness that keeps him from feeling slick. It's a frequently funny performance, although one where Donovan's flustered exterior reinforces how seriously he's taking his job, even if it doesn't expose a vulnerability. When he calmly goes against expectations, it's a delight.
A nifty kinship develops between Donovan and Abel - both lawyers and spies, arguably, are people that people disdain until one is working for their benefit, and each comes to admire the other's commitment and pragmatism. Mark Rylance makes Abel a bit of a cipher - on-mission for a long time, he's clearly tired, and the way he replies "would it help?" every time Hanks' Donovan asks why he's not worried is half resignation, half survivor's wit. Spielberg and company leave a number of contradictions unspoken - the partner from the mercenary law firm displaying an almost inconvenient level of conscience, the public servants treating the whole thing as a game of strategy, the pilot whose death-defying escape is likely seen as dishonorable - in a way that highlights how truly mad the brinkmanship of the twentieth century could be. And yet, for all the period details that the filmmakers are careful to replicate and the lack of obvious echoes, the concerns raised are never left safely in the past; you can't miss how present-day drones look like scaled-down versions of the U-2, or how people will find a way to talk themselves into ignoring legal niceties when afraid.It's done with the highest production values, of course - one would hardly expect anything less of a Spielberg film by now - and presented in such an entertaining fashion that one might think that the filmmakers are treating the material lightly. True, they're not looking for ways to be harsh or wring their hands, but they are telling an interesting story very well, making for a worthwhile trip to the cinema.
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