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There is a remarkable moment early in the film when accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a reserved and dignified man of very few words and stoicism sits contemplatively in a baleful looking prison conference room as his attorney, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) stands near the door with a countenance that inspires the Russian to tell a story of his youth. There was a man he used to know, he reminisces, a family friend for which his father would say: “Watch this man.” And so he did. And this man was in their home when partisan guards arrived and beat his parents and his father’s friend, but the man, each time he was struck, would rise to his feet, prompting the guards to call him “Stoikiy muzhik”, or “Standing man.” Able confesses that at this moment, as the trial for his freedom wages on, Donovan reminds him of this man. Both Hanks and the astonishingly good Rylance barely move and director Spielberg is patient in letting the scene play out with a slow pan of his camera. It’s a powerful moment that is emblematic of the film as a whole.
Interestingly, with a title as bland as Bridge of Spies, something that sounds more suited to a dime story novel in an airport gift shop or a low-budget straight to video action movie, the film is not what is advertised, nor what’s expected. The bombastic trailer hints at a heart-pounding thriller but, like the similarly paced and equally good Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (2011), is, thankfully, anything but. It is smart, challenging, refreshingly honest and one of the best films of the year.
It begins with an imaginative shot of a man sitting in a small apartment beside an open window painting a self portrait with a mirror. We see his reflection, his canvas and his own face, all three meant to represent what we come to see as parts of himself. It’s quiet and measured with a wonderful sense of artistry by Spielberg who refuses to conform to the temptation to open with a bang. Instead, he introduces a character without one word, without a bit of narration, without a single note, and yet in a matter of minutes we know him very well. He’s being watched by the C.I.A., who eventually make their move and raid his home, ransacking his belongings. Arrested as an international spy, he’s thrown in jail for espionage. The year is 1957, the height of the Cold War, and that makes him immediately the most hated man in the country. But not for long. That mantle is quickly passed to the man given the task of defending him, James Donovan, an insurance lawyer asked by the government to uphold the principals of the American justice system, even though everyone, including the judge on the case, want it to be quick.
Meanwhile, Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is assigned to a highly sensitive and top secret mission for the C.I.A. His job is to fly a brand new single person reconnaissance airplane at 70,000 feet over Russia and take pictures. On his first flight, he is shot down, and in a brief but harrowing scene, we watch has he attempts to follow orders and self-destruct the aircraft but is unable to do so as he is thrown from the disintegrating plane. He is rescued by the Soviet military, put on trial, and sentenced to 10 years. Fortunately for him, Abel serves as a chance for an exchange, and it comes down to Donovan, working covertly in a newly dividing and chaotically violent Berlin to broker that deal.
Based on real events and written by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen and Matt Charman, Bridge of Spies pays great respect to the source material and never feels bloated or over-dramatized. The film has a strong period feel and a wonderfully saturated color palette that harkens back to the era. Despite it being a film about numerous conversations, that doesn’t diminish the sense of urgency or tension. The dialog is delivered with theatrical zeal that fits the tone very well, giving these actors great moments of speech, much like Spielberg’s early effort in Lincoln (2012). While the score is sparse, provided by Thomas Newman (Spielberg regular John Williams was unable to contribute due to heath issues), the music feels perfectly written, never dominating, always subtle. The film is populated by a great supporting cast, rounded out best by a brief but memorable role for Alan Alda as Donovan’s boss. Amy Ryan plays the obligatory doting wide, and is a bit underused, but shines in the thankless role. And as mentioned, Rylance is exceptional and is certain to earn a few well-deserved nominations. He is endlessly watchable.
But it is Hanks, that at every turn, being in nearly every scene once introduced, who carries the film. A statesmen of sorts for this generation of actors, Hanks is easily one of modern cinema’s most reliable performers. Here, he is a study of morality, incorruptible, an Atticus Finch in Washington and abroad. Hanks has always been expressive, and though age as puffed his girth and loosened his face, he is a towering figure that is able to say far more with a glance than most can with a hundred words. He is the center of this story and there is none better for the role.
While many might be initially disappointed heading into Bridge of Spies because of its poorly conceived marketing, it doesn’t take long before the film wholly pulls the viewer in. Spielberg crafts another great theater experience, putting together a near perfect production of cinematography, acting, dialog and music. This is a bridge worth crossing.