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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