Movie review: Tom Hanks is a Cold War Atticus Finch in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies | Arts

Movie review: Tom Hanks is a Cold War Atticus Finch in Spielberg's Bridge of Spies


  • photo courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures
  • Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies
★★★ ½
Now playing

The childlike wonder that once accompanied the release of a Steven Spielberg film has been supplanted by an appreciation of the director’s finely honed craftsmanship, a maturation that parallels his preferred story lines. The now 68-year-old Spielberg still dabbles in the adventure flicks of his filmmaking yesteryear. But now they turn out like The Adventures of Tintin and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Bridge of Spies is Spielberg’s stab at a Cold War spy film, filling another chronological gap in his growing oeuvre of historical dramas. The titular thoroughfare refers to the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, the site of the 1962 prisoner trade involving captured American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).

The film chronicles the five years leading up to the exchange, with James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a Bronx-born insurance attorney drafted to defend Abel in 1957, as its fulcrum. The accused Russian spy is entitled to a legal defense even during the Red Scare-era, despite the general public, the media and even the presiding judge presuming his guilt.

The first half plays out like To Kill a Mockingbird, with Donovan cast as a Cold War Atticus Finch. For the sake of duty and justice, Donovan nobly endures the rebuke of strangers, threats to his wife (Amy Ryan) and kids, harassment from CIA spooks and even the reproof of the law partner (Alan Alda) who initially urged him to accept Abel’s defense. Donovan takes a liking to the otherwise vilified Abel, an unassuming foot soldier who, like Powers, was just doing the job his country asked him to do.

Years later, Donovan sojourns to Berlin, now at the behest of the U.S. government, to negotiate the prisoner swap. He jousts with the skullduggery of his Russian and East German opposites, and insists America receive both Powers and imprisoned American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) for Abel’s return. The second half of the film is more disjointed as the inevitability of the outcome becomes more palpable.

Donovan is righteous, droll and likable. In other words, he’s Tom Hanks, who continues his career-long emulation of Jimmy Stewart. Hanks carries every scene except those he shares with Rylance, who takes a reed-thin role—like all the film’s supporting parts—and shapes it into an award-worthy performance. He imbues Abel with grace, poignancy and even wit, and in the process creates the film’s most memorable character.

The script, co-written by Ethan and Joel Coen, lurches through several false endings, each more full of Spielberg sap than the next. But they’re not as cripplingly cloying as the denouements of, say, War of the Worlds and War Horse. The contemporary relevance Spielberg weaves into Bridge of Spies is more significant. The erection of the Berlin Wall and the sight of Germans being gunned down trying to scale it evokes today’s immigration debate and the call for a barrier along America’s border with Mexico. The scope of the legal process afforded (or not) to Abel alludes to our treatment of “enemy combatants” in the war on terrorism. The U-2 overflights of yesterday are akin to the drones of today.

Still, none of these allusions are as grand as Spielberg’s exquisite filmmaking. Sure, there are the ubiquitous lens flares and backlighting. But the cinematography, by regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski, is evocative of time, place and period detail. And the film’s real soundtrack isn’t Thomas Newman’s treacly score. It’s the whir of a steel-bladed fan, the hum of a neon sign and the chromatic scale of a muffled saxophone playing somewhere in Abel’s Brooklyn apartment building.

The fact that Bridge of Spies will be regarded as one of Spielberg’s minor efforts is a testament to his longstanding, enduring talent. The film is a salutation to the best of America, starting with its director.

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