‘Bridge of Spies’ is a Masterful Cold War Thriller from Hanks and Spielberg

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Both Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg grew up in the midst of the Cold War. The looming threat of a potential nuclear war with the Soviet Union hung over every American household in an era of uncertainty and paranoia. Hanks and Spielberg are working together for the first time since 2004’s The Terminal with Bridge of Spies, a phenomenal Cold War thriller that sees both Hanks and Spielberg working at the top of their game. Bridge of Spies is somewhat similar to Spielberg’s last film Lincoln in that it’s rather procedural, though Bridge of Spies carries itself with much more tension and a sly sense of humor than Spielberg’s past historical dramas.

The film opens with Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) painting a self-portrait before receiving a telephone call. He dutifully prepares himself and makes his way across the streets of Brooklyn unknowingly being trailed by agents of the FBI. Abel is eventually arrested and charged with multiple counts of espionage, facing the death penalty if convicted. Since this is America and we have due process, James B. Donovan (Hanks), an insurance attorney who hasn’t worked in the criminal field in years, takes on the case of defending Abel after a brief deliberation with his wife Mary (Amy Ryan). Publicly defending an accused Soviet spy doesn’t sit well with those surrounding Donovan, and his family faces threats of violence while strangers scowl at him on the subway. It also draws the attention of the CIA, including their persistent Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd). But when an American spy plane is shot down over Russia and its pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured, Donovan must negotiate the exchange of spies between the feuding superpowers. Matters are only further complicated when an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Donovan is now in the untenable position of having to satisfy the Americans, the Soviets, and the East German regime.

What’s most fascinating about Bridge of Spies is the manner that Hanks’ James B. Donovan is a man whose own moral obligations outweigh that of the larger political struggles that surround him. Whether the American pilot or the Soviet spy, Donovan is interested in ensuring that people’s humanity is looked after more than the interests of solipsistic superpowers. Hanks has always had a certain everyman quality to him, and here he’s playing what Americans should be in a Spielbergian sense; an optimist and idealist that stands by his moral code despite facing opposition on all sides. There are few scenes without Hanks in Bridge of Spies, and the film is a perfect vehicle for his unique talents as a dramatist, an everyman, and as a comedic actor.

Bridge of Spies looks gorgeous, one of the most visually textured films of Spielberg’s recent output. The interiors are shot with a smoky cinematography, like a room filled with decades’ worth of tobacco smoke just wafting the room. And the exterior shots are very cold with the frame taking on a slight bluish tint, as if the film stock itself lost a bit of color in the bitter cold of a winter in Berlin. Spielberg’s classical style of direction works in perfect unison with the cinematography by Jansuz Kaminski and the perfectly placed edits of Michael Kahn. There’s very little fat in the frames of Bridge of Spies.

But the biggest surprise in the film is just how funny it can be. The script by Matt Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen doesn’t just craft a smart political thriller about the moral ambiguity on both sides of the Cold War, but also injects a number of truly hilarious moments. Some of the more humorous moments come from the wonderful performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, but there’s also one scene of an incredibly awkward dinner that wouldn’t feel out of place in any of the Coen Brothers’ other films. The Coen Brothers have written scripts for other directors before, though none have been as consistently entertaining or as well executed as Bridge of Spies.

From the opening frames to its conclusion, Bridge of Spies grabs a hold of you and never lets go with a gripping tale that balances its humanity and history. Tom Hanks gives another great performance which reminds us once again why he’s such a beloved actor. For those who thought Lincoln was too deliberate in its storytelling, Spielberg amps up the suspense and tension in Bridge of Spies. This is a smart drama for adults who don’t need endless exposition to hold their hands through the story being told on the screen. Simply put, Bridge of Spies is another masterful film from a master filmmaker.

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