Spielberg's "Bridge Of Spies" Uniquely Compelling

Realism in spy movies typically comes at the cost of shootouts and car chases and other espionage tropes audiences hold dear. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “A Most Wanted Man” are semi-recent exemplars of carefully made, enormously dull espionage pictures, each commendable in their restraint but bereft of the kind of escapism that drives people to spy movies in the first place.

Steven Spielberg’s based-on-a-true-story “Bridge Of Spies” brashly thinks it can have both. It almost gets there.

As meticulously made as the aforementioned films but not half as stuffy, it employs its low-key, dispassionate first half as a springboard to something much warmer and more immediate, all without feeling like two different movies. If it lacks the visual iconography usually associated with its director, its gentle humanity and late-game suspense are more than enough to carry it, making for a distinct entry into Spielberg’s filmography.

It’s the early 1960s in Brooklyn, New York. Tom Hanks stars as American insurance lawyer James Donovan, a man surreptitiously handpicked by his boss (Alan Alda) to defend an alleged Soviet spy. Said Russian mole Rudolf Abel (played by renowned stage actor Mark Rylance) and Donovan start off as mutually uncomfortable with each other, the former out of incredulity and the latter out of fear.

An American defending a suspected KGB sleeper agent at the height of the Cold War wasn’t just thankless. It was seen as traitorous, and Donovan – a dedicated family man – understandably wore the duty uneasily. At first. His instinct that Abel deserved a fair shake would quickly blossom into staunch constitutionalism, defiant patriotism in the face of popular opinion.

The first half of the film sees Donovan make the case for why Abel shouldn’t be put to death, all while dealing with threats to his and his family’s safety. It’s well-shot, well-acted, and drier than Tucson air. It’s not until the 90-minute mark that anything really cooks – but does it ever cook.

The movie’s clumsy wedging of a B-story about U2 bombers (Austin Stowell and Jesse Plemons) is unwelcome until it’s not, eventually becoming the story’s crux. The opportunity arises for the CIA to potentially trade Abel to Russia for an American prisoner of war or two, and Donovan becomes the logical choice to negotiate the terms.

Hanks’ innate ability to convincingly play both inexperienced and commanding, warm and steely-eyed, is enough to make the Europe-set negotiation scenes crackle. With the benefit of a screenplay co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen (“No Country For Old Men”), it soars.

Along with writer Matt Charman, they make the largely transactional dialogue gleam as the heavy mid-winter atmosphere created by Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski billows over the proceedings. Multiple stand-offs between Donovan and slippery KGB rep Ivan Schischkin (Mikhail Goreovoy) stand out, but the pic’s final third spills over with great scenes.

But it’s not just Hanks who’s wonderful here. Rylance’s hyper-understated performance as Abel is an outright joy, and the mostly unknown Scott Shepherd gets a star-making turn as a conniving CIA operative.

Conversely, Amy Ryan is utterly wasted as Donovan’s wife Mary. She’s the film’s only chance for a female character – let alone a strong one – and she’s treated like an afterthought, like window dressing to her husband’s story. It’s Spielberg and company’s biggest lapse, and it’s a big one.

But the core of the film – the mutual understanding and respect between Donovan and Abel – is too good, too real to break under the weight of some characterization problems. It’s rare to see a movie protagonist who’s so gently human, so righteously patriotic, and so believable, making “Bridge Of Spies” one of the most striking spy movies ever made.

If its first hour feels more like a lecture than entertainment, Spielberg goes on to bring it all home in a way that should please history buffs and general audiences alike – even though, true to the filmmaker’s form, it has at least three endings.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 16, 2015
Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Matt Charman
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some violence and brief strong language)