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Three Views: Bridge of Spies

October 16, 2015

Bridge of Spies Poster

Bridge of Spies – A DreamWorks Studios Release
Release Date: October 16th, 2015
Rated PG for mature themes and violence
Running Time: 141 minutes

Steven Spielberg (director)

Matt Charman (writer)
Ethan Coen (writer)
Joel Coen (writer)

Thomas Newman (music)

Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan
Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel
Austin Stowell as Francis Gary Powers
Will Rogers as Frederic Pryor
Alan Alda as Thomas Watters Jr.
Billy Magnussen as Doug Forrester
Mikhail Gorevoy as Ivan Schischkin
Sebastian Koch as Wolfgang Vogel
Amy Ryan as Mary Donovan

Bridge of Spies

Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) and James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) in Bridge of Spies.

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Bridge of Spies Review By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

The fourth collaboration between Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies is every bit as good as we have come to expect from the veteran filmmaker and always likeable star, a beautifully crafted historical drama and engaging espionage thriller, awash in a palpable sense of Cold War paranoia.

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a defence lawyer in Brooklyn, specializing in insurance claims, who is hired to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian agent arrested for espionage on American soil.  The case brings him bad press for defending the perceived enemy, but when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured in East Germany, taking pictures of the USSR for the United States, James Donovan is sent there to negotiate an exchange of prisoners, that will return both men to the freedom of their homelands.  Despite apprehension from the CIA, his agreement also includes the release of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an innocent young student detained at the Berlin Wall.

Based on true events, the tightly written screenplay moves at a thrilling pace, recreating the complex backroom manoeuvrings behind these exchanges, with riveting dialogue that allows the negotiation scenes to feel both current and profoundly human.  James Donovan makes for a compelling protagonist, a folksy American hero who believes in justice and a fair trial for everyone, no matter what their crime, arguing that Rudolph Abel was rightly or wrongly just doing a job for his own country, the same way we had spies over in the Soviet Union.  There’s something admirable about his approach, and there is a quiet stoicism between these two men that is touching and inspiring to watch unfold.

Tom Hanks is at his charming and emotional best, channeling Jimmy Stewart in his portrayal of a humble and hardworking lawyer, who just wants to get the job done so that he can go home to his own bed.  Mark Rylance delivers excellent supporting work, bringing genuine sympathy to his complex character, a quietly noble man who holds his head high no matter what punishment may be awaiting him.  The two actors have great chemistry together, beautifully playing off each other during the verbal exchanges, and equally powerful in the quiet moments when they share a look of mutual respect.

The production design is flawless throughout, transporting us back to the era through authentic period details, with a certain grit that adds to the feelings of fear and paranoia felt at the time.  Steven Spielberg brings it all together with a sure hand, and the cinematography by his longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski is appropriately rich, offering plenty of beautifully framed images, steeped in shadowy dark hues that affectively convey a sense of tension and atmosphere.  The music by Thomas Newman, in a rare instance of John Williams not being available, provides a lovely accompaniment to the action.

The actual exchange atop the title bridge is one of the most gripping and quietly suspenseful sequences of any film this year, symbolizing two warring nations working together, at a time when atomic bomb fears were at a record high, and the Berlin Wall was being built as a literal symbol of division.  Because of this, the final few scenes have deep emotional impact.  An outstanding piece of classic moviemaking, with tried and true morals that still resonate, Bridge of Spies is one of the finest prestige pictures of the year, and we would expect nothing less from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks.

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Bridge of Spies Review By Erin Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Taking place between 1957-1962, Bridge of Spies is based on a true story.  When Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) was captured on USA soil, he was appointed a lawyer in order to show the world a ‘fair trial.’  The lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) took his job and the feeling of justice very seriously, and gave Abel a proper and fully thought-through defence.  He also highly advocated that Abel not be given the death penalty, in the event that they would need him should the USSR ever capture one of their own spies.

Donovan’s prediction came true, when the Soviets brought down American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who was photographing over the USSR for military purposes.  In order to have a mediator between the governments, Donovan was appointed to negotiate the swap between countries that would extradite Abel and bring Powers back home.  The meeting, held in East Berlin took Donovan right into the thick of the Cold War, with the Berlin wall literally being built around him.

A film that could have easily become a dry political drama is crafted into a tension-filled film that evokes the dangerous sense of Cold War paranoia.  Spielberg and cinematographer Junusz Kaminski craft the scenes in a way that grips us and reveals smaller human elements along the way of a story about talking governments.  Tom Hanks as usual, delivers an emotional performance, that many times plays off of his face, and his scenes with Mark Rylance are beautifully real conversations taking place in the confines of very small spaces.  By the time the film moves to East Berlin, we see a place still very much not recovered from war and crimes against humanity, and the tension as the residents become boxed in is palpable.

This is a real spy film – not chases and explosions, but a game of two countries quietly extracting information, and what happens when they get caught.  It is a story of trust and distrust, and how fear and justice fight each other at times.  There are many Cold War-era films out there, but Bridge of Spies both follows the formula and surpasses it, due to strong performances and the brilliant direction of Steven Spielberg.  Definitely a must see both in terms of craft and story.

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Bridge of Spies Review By Tony Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Bridge of Spies refers to the Glienicker Brücke which during the Cold War formed part of the barricaded border between what was West Berlin and the suburb of Potsdam. The film follows the role taken by the brilliant Brooklyn insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who had worked at the postwar Nuremberg trials, in the unpopular defence in 1957 of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an aging Russian spy caught in New York, followed by his 1962 exchange across the bridge with the shot down U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell).

Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, Bridge of Spies brings the story to life, not only physically with period location reconstructions (Wrocław, Poland standing in for the Berlin Wall scenes) but also dramatically. Despite its 141 minute running time, it never drags, cutting between various back stories and action and dialogue scenes that enjoyably fill out the historical context both for young people unfamiliar with the period and us nostalgic older folks. I actually visited Berlin in 1977 and went through Checkpoint Charlie to see the Wall from both sides, and this film brought back the tension I felt back then.

The supporting cast is all excellent, including Amy Ryan as Mrs. Mary Donovan, Alan Alda as Donovan’s law partner, and Mikhail Gorevoy and Sebastian Koch as the Russian and East German negotiators. The scenes between Hanks and the distinguished British stage actor Rylance in award-worthy performances are the most memorable in the film. Donovan and Abel had respect for each other’s integrity, the stoic Abel using a Russian expression to describe Donovan that sounds like stoic which he translated as “standing man” (perhaps more idiomatically “stand-up guy”).

Once again Steven Spielberg, with the help of the Coen brothers and a brilliant cast, have given us a piece of history that can be shared with pleasure by all ages.

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Consensus: A beautifully crafted historical drama and engaging espionage thriller, Bridge of Spies is just as good as we have come to expect from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, with compelling characters and surprising emotional impact. ★★★½ (out of 4)

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