Review: Bridge of Spies

It’s mysterious how often history repeats itself. We as a society now live in an age where Russia and the United States are at odds due to political differences, how the game of espionage can anger and cripple nations, how countries who are becoming major players in the race for nuclear arms are posing threats to the American way of life and how information is becoming more valuable than natural resources and monetary assets. It’s funny because master filmmaker Steven Spielberg paints a picture of how that was the norm almost 50 years ago at the height of the Cold War.

Bridge of Spies takes place at the height of the Cold War, and begins with the FBI arresting alleged Soviet operative “Colonel” Rudolph Abel, played by Mark Rylance. Though Abel is not an American citizen, he is allowed the right of due process for appearances sake, so an insurance lawyer named James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, is shanghaied into defending him against the allegations that he is a spy.

Image by Amblin Entertainment

Abel is found guilty in court and in the eyes of the American public, and for doing his job as an attorney, Donovan is practically vilified in the eyes of the public, but manages to score a victory when Abel is sentenced to 30 years in prison rather than the death penalty. This is a victory because the Soviets have captured an American spy pilot named Francis Gary Powers, played by Austin Stowell, and sometime later the East Germans manage to detain an American student named Frederic Pryor, played by Will Rogers.

Donovan’s experience as an insurance lawyer proves useful in convincing the judge to opt for imprisonment rather than the death penalty because he foresaw a situation like this happening and in doing so, saw the opportunity for the Americans, Soviets and the East Germans to negotiate a swap: Abel for both Pryor and Powers.

Image by Amblin Entertainment

At least for me, Bridge of Spies is a cinematic history lesson lectured by Spielberg, orchestrated by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, enacted by a sturdy cast led by Tom Hanks and though it starts out slow and bland it does pick up the pace as the events unfold, but ultimately I couldn’t come away with much of anything except for the fact that I learned something important about the value of diplomacy and the necessity to have the foresight to have insurance in times of crisis.

Is Bridge of Spies a good movie? It will probably depend on who you ask. I believe that the generation who lived through the Cold War, who had to rehearse drills regarding what would happen if the two superpowers launched their respective nuclear arsenals, who read about what happened in the newspapers regarding Donovan, Abel etc, I think they will get a kick out of watching this movie. My generation, I feel that Bridge of Spies is a typical Spielberg cinematic event heavy in the undertones of the powers of diplomacy during tense moments.

I liked Bridge of Spies enough, I respected the film, I found it well-established, but I cannot say that I loved it the way I loved other Spielberg’s works such as War Horse or Lincoln. I will say that this is a movie that truly fits in the current time it was released, amidst the global and political climate.

Image by Georges Biard, via Wikimedia Commons

I will say that I can see why Spielberg elected to tackle this feature after seeing it and I will also say that it feels remarkably familiar to his other prestigious features such as Lincoln, or Saving Private Ryan and I also thought he had the right writers in the Coen Brothers and Matt Charman; the screenplay is one of the strongest sells Bridge of Spies had to offer.

I thought the cast was adequate. Tom Hanks is just one of those actors who can easily rise to challenge any role he signs up for and deliver a stand-up performance and he is simply consistent in this feature. Aside from Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers, I feel that the rest of the cast just fades away and takes a backseat to the central figures of the feature.

Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is rather striking and really showcases Adam Stockhausen’s production design. Michael Kahn’s steady editing allows the film to flow and progress to allow the story to sink in for the spectator and I thought the costumes were added to the visual aesthetic of the production, credit to Kasia Walicka-Maimone. Spielberg maintains his consistent track record of crafting a well-built technical and prestigious spectacle by bringing out the best in the crew he has at hand.

Spielberg’s features also always shine a spotlight on the score, this time courtesy of Thomas Newman, but I think the music is a touch over-the-top. In some scenes the music comes in and just makes the moment a little too sappy/cheesy.

Bridge of Spies is a film highlighting the power of American diplomacy in a time where America and Russia are in a proverbial Mexican standoff. Looking back, observing the film as a typical Steven Spielberg picture, I can surmise that it is one of this year’s most respectable features; not the best, but respectable.

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