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Bridge of Spies Movie Review

Bridge of Spies: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD combo pack cover art
Bridge of Spies is now available on home video. Read our review of the Blu-ray + DVD combo.

Bridge of Spies (2015) movie poster Bridge of Spies

Theatrical Release: October 16, 2015 / Running Time: 135 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Steven Spielberg / Writers: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Cast: Tom Hanks (James Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Scott Shepherd (Hoffman), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters), Billy Magnussen (Doug Forrester), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Dakin Matthews (Judge Byers), Domenick Lombardozzi (Agent Blasco), Peter McRobbie (Allen Dulles), Eve Hewson (Jan Donovan), Noah Schnapp (Roger Donovan), Jesse Plemmons (Murph)

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A pairing of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks is not the exciting occurrence it was in the 1990s when one was America's favorite filmmaker and the other America's favorite actor. Still, these two men will forever remain Hollywood royalty and you can be sure whatever they do even apart but especially together will get people's attentions. Bridge of Spies represents the fourth collaboration between director and star,
following Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal.

This Cold War thriller is set at the turn of the 1960s. We open with a painter in Brooklyn taking a subway ride under scrutiny from stealthy men in suits. He is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) and after we see him engaging in secretive activities, he is arrested in his apartment, accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union. Insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) is assigned to defend the mild-mannered suspect who immediately becomes Public Enemy No. 1 as US-USSR tensions soar.

Against great odds, Donovan goes all Atticus Finch for Abel, ensuring he gets as close to due process as America's legal system will allow. The lawyer pleads for his client to be sentenced to prison, not death, a wish the Judge honors despite wearing his disdain for Abel on his sleeve. Donovan reasons that Abel could be valuable some day in a possible prisoner exchange with Russia and he proves to be right. Soon, taking direction from the CIA and other government agencies, Donovan is coordinating the release of the Russian spy in exchange for two Americans being held by the Soviets: a downed U-2 pilot and a college student who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (the Berlin Wall at its construction).

Donovan flies to Germany and meets with lawyers, officials, and even some people posing as Abel's family. The movie dramatizes these tense negotiations in this time of unrest, while Donovan nurses a cold after his overcoat is stolen by a street gang.

Insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) travels to the Eastern Bloc to negotiate an exchange of imprisoned spies with East Germany and the Soviet Union.

Bridge of Spies is definitely a film from the director of Lincoln. Spielberg made his name on entertaining adventures, from the Indiana Jones series to Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Park. In recent years, Spielberg the blockbuster maker has deferred to Spielberg the prestige director. Since his 2008 return to Indy brought huge returns and an eventual near-consensus of public disappointment, Spielberg has directed mocap franchise non-starter The Adventures of Tintin and the Best Picture-nominated dramas War Horse and Lincoln.

He continues to lend at least his name as executive producer of commercial popcorn enterprises from Transformers to this year's record-smashing Jurassic World. But in terms of telling stories as director, Spielberg's tastes have shifted from the spectacular and otherworldly to the stately and serious. You can trace Spielberg's dramatic side back to 1985's The Color Purple and it is this streak that his produced his most critically admired works, Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. Still, you kind of wish he could lighten up and make something fun again, descriptions that might apply to his next two scheduled films: adaptations of Roald Dahl's The BFG and Ernest Cline's dystopian sci-fi novel Ready Player One.

Though two of its three credited screenwriters are the Coen Brothers, Bridge of Spies keeps Spielberg sober and austere. There are attempts to humanize our protagonist, who is shown to have a wife (Amy Ryan) and three kids. And there are a few decidedly humorous moments scattered throughout. But Bridge mostly picks up where Lincoln left off both in appearance and tone. Spielberg and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski again favor a monochromatic look that relies heavily on natural light. Meanwhile, the movie is as focused on this one negotiation as Lincoln was on the efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. At least that 2012 film scrutinized historic legislation with far-reaching consequences and had a well-known hero (portrayed by a master actor) at its center.

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) takes the unenviable job of defending suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies."

Bridge tells an unknown story that seems kind of important for its time but not significant enough to be taught in schools or dissected. James Donovan is no conventional hero and his heroics unfold with -- what else? -- talking. One wonders how the filmmaker behind some of cinema's most exciting sequences of all time isn't bored to death shooting an entire movie consisting of different pairs of men talking in unremarkable rooms. He's done it twice in a row now. As a critical viewer who values story, characters, and dialogue much more than action and visual effects,

I should admire Spielberg's change of pace as signs of growth and maturation. But it's hard to admire something that you're literally fighting to stay awake through.

Of course, Spielberg remains a master craftsman. His compositions, cuts, and creative decisions make for an interesting expression of the medium. The director again attracts some of the finest talent in town and it shows in everything from the period production and costume design to a score that for once is handled not by John Williams (who was sidelined by health issues) but by the consistently appealing Thomas Newman. This sterling technical work should serve Bridge of Spies well in the Oscars' lesser categories, but it is not enough to offset the bone-dry material. Keeping the Cold in Cold War, Spielberg rarely breaks from a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy tone, most noticeably in a cornball final sequence returning us to New York. The film takes pains to keep us in the dark regarding Abel, the two Americans he could be exchanged for, and the man who is determined to make it happen.

Without being successfully sold on any of this, nothing -- not Hanks' reliably compelling presence, not Rylance's guarded turn (which could yield a Supporting Actor nomination despite a forced catchphrase and his curiously Scottish accent), not the polished technical facets, not current events that echo this -- can keep us as engaged as we should be while watching a movie based on a true story.

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Directed by Steven Spielberg: Lincoln War Horse Amistad Catch Me If You Can The Terminal
Tom Hanks: Captain Phillips Saving Mr. Banks Forrest Gump | Mark Rylance: The Other Boleyn Girl
Written by the Coen Brothers: Inside Llewyn Davis Gambit A Serious Man
The Judge Selma The Conspirator

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Reviewed October 16, 2015.

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