Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, Biography, History
Run Time: 2 hours, 22 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Domenick Lombardozzi, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan
Written by Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen
Directed by Steven Spielberg (Lincoln, War Horse, Munich, Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones Trilogy, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jaws)
Legendary director Steven Spielberg takes on the Cold War in the espionage thriller, Bridge of Spies (opening today). He re-teams with Tom Hanks, who also starred in Spielberg's The Terminal, Catch Me If You Can and Saving Private Ryan, in which he took home the Best Actor Oscar in 1999. But although this latest film is based on a true story, its biggest problem is overcoming several plot contrivances and moments that just ring false. All over this script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, fact is blurred with fiction, resulting in a well-made, well-acted spy movie that doesn't quite reach the level of intrigue in which it's aiming.
Hanks plays real-life insurance salesman James Donovan, who in the early days of the Cold War (the film is set in the late 1950s) gets caught up in an intricate web of government espionage, as America, Russia and post-WWII Germany work in the shadows against each other.
Intelligence and information is the ammunition of choice in this battle, as spies on all sides work to uncover as much as they can to give their side the advantage in a looming nuclear/atomic war. One alleged Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), is caught in New York City, but even though the country is calling for his head, this is America, and he needs to be given due process like anyone else accused of committing a crime.
Donovan is assigned to represent Abel, despite not having a criminal defense background. This choice, picking Donovan, is the film's major flaw, as we would come to learn later. Donovan is a proverbial Boy Scout, a proud, honest, decent American and although there is overwhelming evidence of Rudolf Abel's treason, Donovan doesn't just "go with the flow." He sees some major flaws in how Abel is being prosecuted and he looks to defend his client's innocence.
But this is not a court room drama, at least it isn't after the first half-hour or so. Donovan soon finds that our courts and our government have no intention of giving Abel a fair trial...that they simply must just send him through the process to save face (which begs the question: With all of this corruption, why in the heck would they assign straight-laced James Donovan to this case?). But he is able to convince the judge not to give him the death sentence. This ends up being a very smart move, because when an American pilot's spy plane is shot down over Soviet soil, Abel becomes a negotiation chip that can be used in order to facilitate an exchange between both country's prisoners.
Complicating matters, as the Berlin Wall is being constructed in Germany, an American student is caught on the wrong side of the wall and is taken captive. Trying to operate outside of the books, the U.S. Government sends Donovan to Germany to broker the exchange. Our government wants our pilot back, but when Donovan learns of the student, he tries to involve him in the negotiations as well, and his actions might just jeopardize the entire operation.
This is a film that feels polished and believable from a visual standpoint...Spielberg is a master filmmaker and there isn't one frame of this movie that isn't interesting. And it feels like a throw-back to other spy films, in the sense that all of the drama takes place in smoky, dimly lit offices, where shadowy figures trail our hero through the rainy streets of Brooklyn. There is one scene of action when we see the plane getting shot down, but other than that, this is a talky film that wouldn't work without the great performances - particularly by Hanks and Rylance - or the sharp dialogue that the Coen Brothers have become known for.
But there are just too many big issues with the overall plot that makes Bridge of Spies good, not great. You get the sense that although this was a movie based on a real historical event, the filmmakers decided to color (or de-saturate, as it were) in with their own broad strokes. In addition to the unbelievable nature of why Donovan is even selected to be involved in any of this, you have under-cooked supporting characters like Donavan's wife (Amy Ryan), and digestable chunks of film that either completely spell out what is happening, or water-down scenes to make what should be complex negotiations seem like your watching a soap opera, where everything is wrapped up because there is another show coming on soon.
This is far from Speilberg's best, but a man as influential as Steven Spielberg should not be judged simply by comparing each one of his films to his classic film canon. Game of Spies is a workable and crowd-pleasing spy thriller, but for how important the events are that it depicts, the film itself feels inconsequential.
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