Bridge of Spies

“Bridge of Spies” has its flaws, but like any Spielberg movie, it’s quite intriguing.
Movie Review #1,054


Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone Pictures.  Biography-Drama-Thriller.  Running time: 2 hours, 22 minutes.  Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.  Released October 19, 2015.  Directed by Steven Spielberg.  Written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.  Starring Mark Rylance, Tom Hanks, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Scott Shepherd, Will Rogers, and Sebastian Koch.

There’s three different events that propel the story in “Bridge of Spies”.  In one, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy, is arrested in Brooklyn.  In another, Francis Gary Powers, an American pilot, is shot down and captured by Soviets while spying on them from a U-2 plane.  In a third, Frederic Pryor, an American student, is imprisoned at Checkpoint Charlie when he tries to visit his girlfriend in East Berlin.  James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) loses virtually all of his credibility as a lawyer when he represents Abel in court, and Abel ultimately receives a thirty-year sentence.  However, the Soviet Union contacts Donovan, proposing a prisoner exchange, in which the United States would receive Powers and East Germany (an ally to the Soviets) would receive Abel.  Donovan knows about Pryor, though, and negotiates for a 2-for-1 exchange.  However, the Soviets are not very willing to settle for that plan.

It’s of note that “Bridge of Spies” is Steven Spielberg’s first film since 1985–and his second overall–to feature a composer other than John Williams.  Thomas Newman’s score is close enough, though.  It’s a refreshingly different approach to the film’s music than what Williams would have given, but even so, don’t expect to be humming the score for hours after the movie is over. That description seems to fit the film as a unit.  It’s a very good film, but I have certainly seen Spielberg do better.

What keeps everything so darn intriguing is the performances.  Tom Hanks fits the shoe of his role quite comfortably.  We’ve seen him work with Spielberg on four occasions, and in his role as James Donovan, Hanks exhibits some of his best work since “Saving Private Ryan”.  Better yet is Mark Rylance.  An actor isn’t generally considered an up-and-comer at the age of 56, and it’s certainly worth noting that Rylance has acted in theatrical Shakespeare productions for years.  His transition to film in “Bridge of Spies” is terrific.  His presence makes the opening scene exceedingly memorable.  We watch a quiet man wordlessly paint his self-portrait in his apartment, blend in almost invisibly among the hubbub of the New York subway system, and then settle on the lawn in front of the Brooklyn Bridge to paint some more.  Rylance offers that brilliant exposition in pure silence, and the majesty he establishes then pervades the rest of the film.

Along with British playwright Matt Charman, the Coen brothers wrote the screenplay for “Bridge of Spies”.  This is all too clear.  The script bears several inflections of the wit that singles the two siblings out as writers.  This definitely isn’t a comedy, but the Coens have certainly kept enough highbrow humor, such as a rambling discussion of semantics early in the film, to crack a smile.  Like most everything that Steven Spielberg has directed, “Bridge of Spies” is lighthearted, despite the weight of its plot.  And like many other Spielberg films, the film does fall captive once or twice to unnecessary plotholes.  The one I feel I must address: how is it that a student waiting in line is arrested at Checkpoint Charlie, but Tom Hanks is let through when he cuts in line and hurriedly tells the East German police that he has an urgent meeting with an East German lawyer?  I’d imagine that moments like that wouldn’t have gone down so well in reality.  You could argue that Spielberg is just keeping it simple so as not to interrupt the pace of the film, and in fact that does seem to be the case.  The film flows almost naturally and practically flies by.  Yes, “Bridge of Spies” has its flaws; it’s not a perfect film.  But once again, like any Spielberg movie, it’s quite intriguing.


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