CAPSULE: BRIDGE OF SPIES is a Cold War thriller based on fact. Tom Hanks plays a New York insurance lawyer who defends a Soviet spy and then negotiates the exchange of the spy for U-2 pilot Gary Powers. Steven Spielberg directs a script provided by the Coen Brothers (and Matt Charman). This is a truly adult thriller. Its thrills come not from the barrel of a gun or master martial artists jumping from building to building. Instead it is about a plain lawyer doing his job and somewhat more than his job. In the process he changes history. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
Now here is a film directed by Steven Spielberg, written by the Coen Brothers (and Matt Charman), and starring Tom Hanks. Each of them is at the top of his field. That usually is a recipe for a disaster. Even if a producer gets the best people it does not mean they work well together. Each will have his own instincts. I cannot say that harmed this film though there certainly were moments that were very Spielberg and moments in the dialog that were noticeably Coen Brothers.
Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a Soviet spy operating in New York City in 1957. When he is captured and arrangements are made to put him on trial it seems the whole United States is pulling for Abel to be executed. After a long list of potential defense lawyers is considered, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who had a small part in the prosecution of the Nurnberg trials is chosen to defend Abel. With the country thirsting for Abel's blood, Donovan manages to avoid a death sentence. When U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Russia, Donovan must go to East Berlin to see if he can broker an exchange of prisoners, Powers for Abel. Donovan depends on his rare talent for making the person he is negotiating with want what he wants.
We do feel some Spielberg moments. The film begins with a lush image of the streets of New York City as they were in 1957. They make a telling comparison to the not-so-lush streets of East Berlin in 1961 when the Berlin Wall was being built. Still, the building of the wall is one more historical event like the Fall of Shanghai, the Battle for Iwo Jima. the Munich Olympic Massacre, and the D-Day Landing that Spielberg has re-created in iconic images for his viewer. The question of whether the Constitution grants rights to the country's enemies is as timely as Guantanamo. There is some of the feel of SCHINDLER'S LIST in showing soldiers' cruelty to civilians. There is what may be one too many sweet bits in the last few scenes of the film, but Spielberg likes to play on the emotions. Donovan has some very strong feelings about justice, the law, and the United States Constitution, which also springs from Spielberg
The dialog in the film has touches of subtle prose supplied by Joel and Ethan Coen that leave the viewer something to think about. There are arguments such as, is a runaway car hitting five motorcycles one accident or is it five?
Tom Hanks is a very generous actor, willingly giving up viewer attention to other actors when they share scenes with him and have something to show. That is actually true through much of BRIDGE OF SPIES. Rudolf Abel is played by Mark Rylance, best known as Cromwell of WOLF HALL. He plays the Russian spy so impassively that he becomes a riddle to the viewer, so ironically that he steals every nearly scene he is in. Amy Ryan of GONE BABY GONE plays Donovan's wife, who in a thankless role must wheedle her husband to return home when she thinks he is fishing in Scotland. Alan Alda also has a small role, but most of the other faces are unfamiliar.
In this story based on fact, we get to know this insurance lawyer, uncertain of his own abilities, as he fights the bureaucracies of three countries, including his own, to do what the governments of the countries cannot do for themselves. Once again in a Spielberg film the common man--or near-common man--triumphs. I rate BRIDGE OF SPIES a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10. This is one of the best films of the year.
Note: I am informed by my wife that the patent number we see on a razor blade is really for a patent on a device for removing railroad ties.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3682448/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/bridge_of_spies/
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2015 Mark R. Leeper