Review by Paul Stathakis | December 6, 2015

Tom Hanks is warm in Cold War drama

Steven Spielberg is a heck of a good filmmaker. If you didn’t know that by now, you have nearly 50 titles including “Bridge of Spies” as proof. This is the work of a seasoned storyteller in total control, confident, and working with an eye that is as sharp today, if not sharper, than it was when he first launched his career in Hollywood over 30 years ago. The director once claimed that the thing that scared him the most in life was the notion of waking up someday and boring somebody with a film. He needn’t worry for if his career has revealed a pattern, it’s that time and time again, Spielberg makes entertaining films that are able to mesmerize and touch viewers. “Bridge of Spies” is no exception. It represents the kind of cinema that’s in danger – one that lets actors act and writers tell a compelling story with limited reliance on computer-generated imagery. In short, “Bridge of Spies” is a welcome return to the charming pictures of yesterday.

Tom Hanks stars as the very likeable James B. Donovan, an American insurance lawyer, who accepts to defend captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in court. Now, being a Russian spy doesn’t sound like much of a problem unless you happen to be one operating within the United States at the height of the Cold War. That happens to be the case in “Bridge of Spies” which takes place in 1957, at a time where Soviet and U.S. relations were rocky. Those who lived through the era, much like Spielberg himself, remember it as a period of fear and uncertainty. The world stood on the brink of nuclear disaster. The threat was real. Spielberg makes no attempt to mask that sense of impending doom that preoccupied not just America, but the world.

Upon examining the case closer, Donovan quickly realizes that he and Abel don’t have much of a fighting chance. The judge along with other court officials seem to have already reached a guilty verdict before the trial can even get underway. The real purpose of the hearing, Donovan is told, is to simply sell to the world (especially to the Soviets) the idea of a fair justice system. That is, of course, until an American spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot, an American by the name of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is detained. Donovan, at the request of the CIA, is then asked to facilitate a complex trade. Things intensify as both countries negotiate the exchange of one spy for another. Of course, the real worry on everyone’s mind is the risk of confidential information being shared with “the other side.”

But nothing about this delicate situation worries Abel in the least. He remains calm and composed throughout the entire ordeal. Never once does he seem preoccupied even when it becomes clear that his fate has been predetermined. When Donovan asks Abel if he’s worried, the soft-spoken spy simply replies, “Would it help?” Mark Rylance’s performance gives us great reason to care for his character. Though we learn little about him, we, much like Donovan, see the goodness in him. He is a victim of circumstances, caught while doing his job. Rather than portray Abel as an enemy, Spielberg instead focuses on his humane side. His conversations with Donovan reveal a philosophical, intelligent, and sensible man. In one particular scene, he tells Donovan an anecdotal story from his childhood. He uses a Russian expression, which translates to “standing man”, to praise Donovan for his persistence. Abel uses the expression again later in the film at just the right moment. In a recent interview, Rylance spoke about the scenes where he is seen painting: “I’d forgotten at certain points, we were making a film and got so fascinated with how you paint moving water and the light on the water.” This isn’t just an ordinary performance. Here, we have an actor who truly wants to know the character he is portraying, to get under his skin and to see the world as the real Rudolf Abel saw it.

Spielberg didn’t cast Hanks by chance. During the casting process, the director was looking specifically for an actor who can convey honesty onscreen without even trying – perhaps Hanks’ best quality as an actor. His performance in “Bridge of Spies”, like in “Captain Phillips” (2013), reaffirms that he hasn’t lost the ability to play an amiable and respectable man. Can you think of any film that he’s been in where you didn’t root for or want to see him survive and succeed? “The Ladykillers” (2004) might be the only omission but that’s still one out of over 25 great performances. Though “Bridge of Spies” is Hanks and Spielberg’s fourth collaborative effort, it’s their best work together since “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).

“Bridge of Spies” was made for the viewer who appreciates fine performances, great direction, witty dialogue, and a satisfying ending. The film is equally stirring especially in those instances where Spielberg takes liberties in being less political and more fixated on people and their emotions. As a youngster, Spielberg was consumed with the threat of nuclear warfare. During his teenage years, the director confesses that he saw Communist Russia as an enemy but explains that his father saw them, “as human beings, who were just as scared of us as we were of them.” This is the idea at the heart of “Bridge of Spies.” This belief keeps Spielberg’s bias closer to the middle though two separate scenes, one involving escapees scaling a wall and another showing kids innocently climbing a fence, suggest that the Soviets may have been less tolerant. Then again, we find at least three moments in the film that cast America in a poor light. This is the fairest kind of filmmaking we’re likely to see in any mainstream film this year, and that speaks volumes.

 

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