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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Thrilling Historical Epic
by Frank Wilkins

There’s a lot to like in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War-era spy thriller Bridge of Spies: reliving memories of those old “duck-and-cover” educational films; fedora-clad G-men tracking shadowy figures who dart in and out of New York subway cars; clandestine prisoner swaps between distrusting governments; riveting courtroom drama; spy cameras, hollowed out coins, cyanide-laced pin pricks.

But the strength of the film -- and the glue that holds everything together -- lies in the bond developed between two men. A bond built on mutual respect and common understanding at a time when trusting the enemy could get you killed.

One of those men is American James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an unlikely tax lawyer who agrees to represent an alleged Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) arrested by the FBI for sending coded messages back to Russia. Though a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials years earlier and highly regarded within the legal community, Donovan has little to no experience with allegations of this magnitude and is reluctant to get involved.

But he does and soon finds himself Public Enemy No. 1 as he agrees to represent Abel and stubbornly sticks to the principles of American justice and basic human rights in spite of Abel’s foreign citizenship and the country’s fear-fueled appetite for revenge. Of course, at the time, just mentioning “Russia” was enough to get yourself lumped in with the bad crowd, so imagine the public scrutiny when Donovan demands we apply all the rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution to a Soviet spy caught in the U.S with his hand in the cookie jar.

The relationship Donovan first forges with Abel is one of an extreme professional -- as if wanting to show the enemy what a good people we Americans are by being a skilled advocate in his defense. But as the two come to really know one another, we see that relationship grow on a personal level and we begin to understand that Donovan would risk his own comfort and safety because he truly believes the constitution must be respected by and applied to everyone, despite their origins. A sentiment that carries a heap of relevance even today. And who better for such an honorable role than Tom Hanks?

As expected, Hanks is brilliant once again as he dons the everyman’s hat and goes into full Jimmy Stewart mode. But despite never having acted in a film this big, British stage actor Rylance nearly steals the show with his understated personification of grace under pressure. With unflappable politeness tinged by the perfect dose of candid humor, he turns an enemy of the highest order into an extremely likable character. Rylance is an unexpected surprise, and it’s a great pleasure to watch him go toe-to-toe with Hanks.

About an hour in, Spielberg’s plot launches another thread into the mix as the capture of U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) diverts Donovan’s attention and provides validity to his argument against the death penalty being used on Abel in case a prisoner swap can be arranged. Yet another point of negotiation is revealed when an American student gets caught in the East/West Berlin altercation and the walling off of the Russian sector of the city.

Yes, there are a lot of balls in the air at once in this thrilling historical epic that is smartly scripted by Matt Charman with final polish applied by the Coen Brothers. But the story never gets too complicated to appreciate and is always highly approachable and entertaining with Spielberg’s glossy Hollywood “look and feel” slathered on in heavy layers. Bridge of Spies has a pleasant, old-fashioned atmosphere to it that waxes nostalgic to the days when the threat of the mushrooming atomic cloud and fierce tree-snapping winds that disintegrate houses in seconds were very real.

There’s a gripping finale that takes place on the titular Glienicke bridge connecting East Berlin to West Berlin. Despite very little action, it’s a fascinating white-knuckle scene that’s classic Spielberg as the Americans on one end of the bridge face off against the Russians on the other with the prisoner swap about to go down. The scene harkens back to some of the most successful moments in Jaws when our anticipation goes through the roof while Spielberg’s motionless camera lingers on a single floating barrel. Except in this case he pauses on the two heavily-armed sides squaring off… each waiting for the other to blink.

(Released by Dreamworks Pictures and rated “PG-13” for some violence and brief strong language.)

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