Film Reviews

AS PITHY AS IT GETS – <i>Bridge of Spies</i> (2015)

AS PITHY AS IT GETS – Bridge of Spies (2015)

Alice Chou

October 22nd, 2015

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Steven Spielberg has directed a vast repertoire of films, ranging from big summer blockbusters to serious historical dramas. Oftentimes, his films feature a protagonist with strong convictions and good intentions facing difficult odds. Bridge of Spies is no exception. To label this one as purely a Cold War espionage thriller is not entirely accurate. The films starts out as a courtroom procedural and then turns into an exercise in the art of negotiation.  

Inspired by actual events and written by Matt Charmon, and Ethan and Joel Coen, the film takes place in 1957, at the height of the Cold War. James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer, is tapped by the government to defend Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Even though the government wants a fair trial in appearance only, Donovan feels compelled to give the best defense possible for Abel since he believes everyone, including non-citizens, deserves their day in court. In the process, during the time of extreme anxiety over the possibility of nuclear attack, he becomes a publicly despised man for defending an enemy and compromises the safety of his family. When a pilot on a reconnaissance mission, Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down and captured by the Soviets, Donovan is called to broker a deal that would exchange Abel for Powers. Donovan, once again, feels obligated to do his duties for his clients and his country. At his own initiative, he also tries to bring home an American college student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), held in custody by the East German police.

Hanks is in his comfort zone here; he has embodied the persona of James Stewart. He easily transforms into the character of Donovan, a man of integrity and ethics. He is a master negotiator and always uses his skills for the greater good. The standout, however, is Rylance. Similar to his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in the BBC production of Wolf Hall, his minimalist approach to the performance is what is captivating. One can’t help but like this stoic enemy spy with a dry sense of humor. I found myself waiting to hear what he would say next with high anticipation. When Donovan asks him why he is not worried or concerned about his fate, he answers, “Would it help?”

The film does lack a sense of dread, suspense, and claustrophobia compared to other films with Cold War era themes such as The Lives of Others. We never doubt the sincerity and the principle of Donovan and the ending is predictable. Perhaps this is due to the patriotic tone of the story and our expectation of a Tom Hanks movie.

Bridge of Spies is well-made in a traditional style with attention to set design details and good use of foreshadowing, although a few scenes toward the end of the movie feel redundant. It’s gratifying to watch the friendship develop between Donovan and Abel over a few brief encounters, and the ways Donovan negotiates with the Russians and the East Germans are clever and engaging. We can only hope we have similar trustworthy, resourceful, and effective negotiators working in our present government.

Bridge of Spies continues its run at Regal Cinemas Valley River 16 and Cinemark 17. Click here for showtimes.

Alice Chou is a physician by trade, but a lifelong cinephile and a novice movie reviewer. As Pithy as it Gets is an irregular column in which she provides critical analysis of films screening locally.

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