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Movie Review: 'Bridge of Spies'

Bridge of Spies adds quick wit and excellent performances to the melancholy age of The Cold War.

Review by Matt Cummings

In Steven Spielberg's feel-good Bridge of Spies, the American insurance lawyer Donovan (Tom Hanks) must negotiate to secure the release of spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) during the turbulent era of the early 1960's. But in order to do so, Donovan must deliver the Russian spy Abel (Mark Rylance), whom Donovan has recently defended in a lopsided trial. As the Russians complete the barrier between East and West, Donovan faces nearly insurmountable odds and a dwindling timetable to deliver Abel and get his people back into home soil.

This fourth collaboration between the two Hollywood heavyweights yields fine results, adding another must-see to the growing list of recent and excellent spy films. It lands softly somewhere between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and James Bond: totally accessible, but missing most of the real negotiations that come with spycraft. Hanks is terrific as always, occupying a fierce position with regard to the US Constitution and the rights of all people, whether they be Russian spies or not. He defends Abel even when all of New York seems against him, encouraging a violent response and indifferent opinions from law enforcement. But Hanks feels like he's rehashing similar roles in Saving Private Ryan; Donovan could be Captain Miller had he survived, or Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks. Hanks is a bowl of hot soup, or macaroni and cheese. You love the feeling of seeing him perform and feel bad if you raise a complaint about eating off this plate numerous times. But Hanks is one of Hollywood's best, and in Bridge he makes Donovan a real figure, one to either be hated or loved depending on where you stood on Communism at the time.

And while Hanks might receive an Oscar nom just because he's Hanks, Rylance is almost certain to be a front runner for Best Supporting. He occupies Abel with a quiet and steely resolve, never one to overreact or worry about whether 1960's America will curse him for his choices. He and Hanks occupy a witty and perky relationship on screen, both ready to compliment the other instead of trying to outdo the other. That makes for great theater, one in which I found my loyalties slowly moving towards Abel's side but wary of Donovan's plight. That's what Spielberg and Writers Joel and Ethan Cohen bring here, an experience of graying loyalties mixed with sharp humor and solid historical underpinnings.

Spielberg crafts every image in Spies with full knowledge of his power, ready and able to wield it either for Donovan or against Abel. Lincoln proved he could handle the heavy historical; Spies proves he can bend it to his will. True, this is "based on a true story" but Spielberg wraps Hanks and company with enough polish and precision to make us question both Donovan's tactics and laud him for his sensibilities. Others - like Donovan's boss (Alan Alda) and the slick East German lawyer Vogel (Sebastian Koch) - move gracefully through their scenes, all led by Spielberg's steady and sure hand.

In the end, Bridge of Spies keeps Hanks on sure footing and elevates Rylance's swagger, but any real Oscar hopes will surely come based on what's up in November/December. That's where the heavy hitter play, and much like Donovan, Spies might be content to make its deal and bow out before things get really serious.

Bridge of Spies is rated Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language and has a runtime of 141 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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