Bridge of Spies - Hanks? Spielberg? Coen Brothers? Cold War? Bring on the Oscar Gold!

Marter | 18 Oct 2015 12:00
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Directed by Steven Spielberg. Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Marc Platt, and Steven Spielberg. Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen. Release date: October 16, 2015.

Bridge of Spies has no right to be anywhere near as good as it turns out to be. This is a movie in which a bunch of people sit around various rooms and talk. These conversations more often than not accomplish very little - never nothing, but what could be done in one talk can often take five or six. There is only one "big-name" actor, the setting is the Cold War - although there are no action scenes, nor any points at which the actions of anyone involved could potentially trigger nuclear war - and the protagonist of the film has such a desire to see justice done that you almost wonder if he could exist. On paper, Bridge of Spies shouldn't work. This is why we don't watch movies on paper. (And when such technology does exist, I will be disappointed that this phrase no longer applies.)

Bridge of Spies plays out like two different stories that are mashed together - it works, but it makes talking about the second half a little difficult because, in order to do so, it involves more or less spoiling the first half. It's true, though, that the film is based on a true story, so perhaps nothing can truly be spoiled. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a Brooklyn insurance lawyer who is asked to defend a man named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy. Given that this is during the height of the Cold War, this is only to be done as a way to give the illusion that Abel has been given a fair trial; in the minds of almost everyone involved, he's guilty. That is, everyone but Donovan, who gives him the defense of a lifetime. He loses, but at least convinces the judge to incarcerate Abel instead of giving him capital punishment, arguing that, if the Russians captured an American spy, perhaps an exchange could be reached.

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Well, wouldn't you be surprised when that's precisely what happens? Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down while taking spy pictures but fails to both blow up his plane or self-terminate. This is also the time when the Berlin Wall was being constructed. An American graduate student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is captured when trying to get his girlfriend from East to West Berlin. Donovan is recruited to negotiate an exchange between the Americans and Soviets, with the only focus being on reacquiring Powers. But this is James B. Donovan we're talking about, so he proceeds with a gambit to acquire both captured men.

That sounds heavy on the plot, and that's because it is. The film runs for over two hours and is almost nothing but talk. Hanks is front-and-center for the entirety of the proceedings and is a large part of the reason this works. We forget it simply because he doesn't act as frequently as he once did, but Hanks is an outstanding actor, gifted with both dramatic depth and staggeringly great comedic timing - and he gets to show off both here. His conversations with almost anyone in the film are so captivating that this winds up being all we need to have an enjoyable film.

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