Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ talismanic working relationship have already produced great results in the past from the sweeping Saving Private Ryan to the madcap Catch Me If You Can, and in Bridge of Spies the cinematic powerhouse duo once again reteam for a gripping period piece true story. But while their previous efforts showed off explosive drama and bubbling frivolity, Bridge of Spies is a far more sobering effort. Much like the winter-gripped Berlin in which much of the film’s 2nd half takes place, there’s an efficient chilliness to it all that shies away from bluster and fanfare.

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Ever the technician, Spielberg fine tunes this tale into a Cold War drama that may mostly eschew the overbearing sense of paranoia and peril that so often pervades the genre (although there are palpable flashes of it), but offers a much more human approach that may not be as cinematically flashy, but is nonetheless engaging.

Set in 1957, Bridge of Spies tells of James B. Donovan (Hanks), an American laywer given the thankless task of defending recently captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), so that the world can see that even enemies of the state get to have a fair trial in the great US of A. But much to the explosive ire of the public and the very judiciary who are supposed to ensure that fairness – but who would much rather just give this criminal a swift kick to the electric chair – Donovan is intent on doing his job to the best of his abilities. Not helping matters much is that Abel is a far cry from the secret-stealing monster that the public assumes him to be, but really is soft-spoken man who mainly just wants to paint whenever he can – and as such it isn’t long before Donovan takes a liking to him.

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And so despite threats to him and his family, both verbal and physical, Donovan manages to keep Abel free of the death penalty, with the justification being that if an American was ever to be captured by the Soviets, USA would have somebody to trade for his life. Donovan’s desperate precognition pays off as a US spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down over Russia. Powers ends up held in volatile East Berlin though, and with America not wanting to be seen engaging directly with their nemeses, they reach out to Donovan again to covertly negotiate a prisoner trade as a private citizen, just representing his client.

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Matters are complicated though when the de facto East German government captures a young American graduate student caught on the wrong side of the Wall as it goes up, and offers him up for trade for Abel instead in a bid to win political legitimacy for their administration. This forces Donovan, who is utterly unwavering on his insistence of getting both young Americans back alive, to have to play both USSR and East Germany, while at the same time dealing with his secret CIA “handler” Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) who just wants to get Powers back before he spills too many state secrets.

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Unfortunately Spielberg’s infamously mawkish sentimentality gets laid on a tad thick when it comes to Donovan’s steadfast moral resolve, especially in the film’s later moments. But you can’t really blame the storied filmmaker, as much like his hero in this tale, he’s sometimes inclined to lead with his heart rather than his head. But before that saccharine misstep though, Bridge of Spies stands as a solid treatise not just on society’s slippery, transitive sense of justice but also as an allegory for the grey-toned morals of modern day politics. This is never more clearly defined than by the contrasting court cases of Abel and Powers – one is a circus, complete with the baying for flood, while the other is a composed affair, devoid of political drama. That the former takes place in the supposedly more refined USA is not a lost parable.

Hanks leads from the front with a solid performance that may not present much opportunity for the thespian showiness of recent turns like Captain Phillips, but still offers the Oscar-winner plenty of material to build an immensely likeable character whose steadfast ideals get pushed to the brink. Shepherd also gets to have some fun as the flustered Hoffman, trying to rein in the overly-moral whims of Donovan which threaten to undo his operation. Unfortunately most of the rest of the cast – like Amy Ryan and Donovan’s wife – get wan roles to work with. But it’s Mark Rylance who completely steals the show as Abel, presenting an almost hilarious stoicism even in the face of most dire odds (“Would it help?”, he often deadpans when asked why he is not worried about being executed). It’s a performance that may be overlooked due to how low-key it is, but it’s in that quietude where it’s brilliance lies.

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Similarly, Spielberg also turns in a restrained but no less impressive showing behind the camera. With the exception of the film’s solitary action sequence (a bombastic aerial sphincter-tightener in which Powell’s plane is shot down) he mainly lets the script from the Coen Bros do its thing to tell this slow-burn tale of espionage drama, without the need for any artificial histrionics to bump it up – the film’s dialogue-free opening is a masterclass in the efficacy of silence in film. Spielberg shows off his best filmmaking intelligence in the film’s first two acts though, which are rife with hard ideological conundrums, while its latter portions take a more standard approach.

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And shot in muted tones that fit in with the wintry feel, lacking any scenery devouring performances and with regular composer John Williams’ trademark boisterous music swapped out for a much more resigned offering from Thomas Newman, it is understandable that Bridge of Spies may be a bit too slow of a burn for some. It may not be the best or wholly successful work that the team of Spielberg and Hanks has ever delivered (which is not saying too much based on their high standard of work), but for those viewers looking for a prescient retelling of a fascinating piece of history though, there’s still much to like in this intensely stern Cold War procedural.

Last Updated: November 4, 2015

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions – but very little sleep – I’ve been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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