Review: Bridge of Spies – Covert Cold War compromises

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Bridge of SpiesWhen Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (not to mention the screenwriters, Joel and Ethan Coen) collaborate on a movie, one expects a particularly high level of quality, and with Bridge of Spies the filmmakers certainly deliver on those lofty expectations. That being said, this is also a film that these master craftsmen could have probably done in their sleep. The acting in this picture is great, the cinematography is top notch, and it has Spielberg’s trademark attention to detail and retro-wholesomeness; but somehow I was still underwhelmed.

There is no real ‘wow’ factor to be had in this movie about covert cold war compromises and there is definitely not any of the insane action we’ve seen in this year’s abundant crop of espionage films. Whether that lack of action is a plus or a minus depends on your predilection for pandemonium, I suppose. This movie has no faults other than a considerable level of ‘meh.

Set in the late fifties and early sixties, Hanks plays a real-life character, James B. Donovan, a former United States Navy officer who was heavily involved as an attorney in the post-WWII Nuremburg Trials. As the film begins he is now an insurance company lawyer who, because of his history with the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, is asked to defend a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who has been captured in New York.

Abel is ultimately convicted (sorry for the 50+ year-old spoiler), but, through Donovan’s dogged perseverance, the spy is spared the death penalty. Donovan and his family, however, are looked down on for his defense of the publicly hated Russian agent.

Bridge of SpiesMeanwhile a United States U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union and Donovan is called on by the U.S. government to negotiate a prisoner swap; Abel for the captured U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), and an American student who inadvertently found himself on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

The Cold War minutiae in this film is rather, well, cold, and it is probably going to appeal mostly to history buffs (like Hanks and Spielberg themselves); but the heart of the film is Donovan’s relationship with Abel, who is portrayed as a good-natured Russian Norman Rockwell-like do-gooder. These men connect by recognizing and respecting the fact that that they are both good and dedicated soldiers for their respective causes.

Bridge of SpiesDonovan goes from being hated for his defense of Abel to being respected for bringing the American boys home, and while I respect the arc of Donovan’s story, Spielberg adds an extra layer of cheese to the movie’s ending that made my eyes roll. It’s to be expected.

The film is based on Donovan’s book, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers, and, as mentioned, the screenplay was written by Joel and Ethan Coen. Bridge of Spies also stars Alan Alda as Donovan’s law partner and boss, Amy Ryan as his wife, and Jesse Plemons as a U-2 pilot and friend of Francis Gary Powers.

Although this is a period piece the topics of distrust between nations, torture, political grandstanding and potential nuclear war are, unfortunately, as timely today as they were fifty-years ago. This is a fine movie, but I would have preferred a little more of an edge to it. Grade: 7.5/10

Photos © 2015 Dreamworks II Distribution Co., LLC and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

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