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Bridge of Spies - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Bridge of Spies
Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

Bridge of Spies plays out in two acts, the first more provocative and relevant than the second. There's a bit of irony in that, considering you would think Tom Hanks's James B. Donovan, sent to late-fifties East Berlin to negotiate an exchange of spy prisoners between the Soviet Union and the United States, would be the more interesting part. It's still commands attention, to be sure, but there's a greater urgency to the story in the first half.

That's when, after a lengthy opening sequence with nearly no dialogue in which suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is pursued and then detained by the FBI in Brooklyn, Donavan is asked to serve as Abel's defense lawyer. There is some brief hemming and hawing about this, given that everyone presumes Abel to be guilty, but the argument is that when communism threatens the American way of life, then the Constitutional code should apply even to our captured suspected enemies. It's an overtly moral, and patriotic, argument.

Steven Spielberg -- not to mention his three-person writing team, including Joel and Ethan Coen -- is doing something similar here to what he did in War of the Worlds in 2005, in that he's using one issue as a metaphor for what's going on in our current world. In the previous case, it was transparently about then-current fears of terrorism. With Bridge of Spies -- and again, this is especially the case in the first half -- it's about where we draw the line between justice and so-called national security. If we abandon American ideals and principals in the name of "security," then what's the point?

And Bridge of Spies is less about communism specifically than you might think. It's about doing what's right in the face of a mob mentality. James Donovan struggles briefly with defending Abel, but once he makes his decision, he sticks to his convictions even in the face of increasing resistance to Abel's defense, on the part of everyone from his wife to the very judge in the case. Donovan, as he openly expected, becomes nearly as hated across the country as Abel himself, simply because he agreed to defend him. Along the way, elements of due process that would always be allowed in a more conventional criminal case involving an American are denied Donovan and his client.

The question of justice, and its denial in the name of "bigger issues" -- as the judge puts it -- is well played out, both in films and especially in current events of the real world we live in, Black Lives Matter being the tip of the iceberg. Spielberg lays out the inherent problems with admirable subtlety, albeit using a story that is by definition lacking in diversity. Given the era of this film, this is perhaps a challenge, but it sure would be nice to see more movies like this with vital female characters in it. Donovan's wife, Mary, is played by the excellent Amy Ryan, and all Ryan really gets to do is stand around either looking pretty or looking worried. We even spend a few too many minutes at the end with the sentimental reunion of Donovan with his family -- the very same thing having been the biggest problem with War of the Worlds. Sentimentality is something Steven Spielberg reliably dwells on too much.

Setting that aside, though, Bridge of Spies is still plenty compelling, from beginning to end, even if the first half is a bit more so. By the end, it moves into taking its title rather literally, as the spy exchange occurs on an actual bridge. But James Donovan is a civilian man, an attorney, who through a peculiar sequence events winds up negotiating the exchange of prisoners between the world's two greatest superpowers at the height of the Cold War. This is "inspired by true events," which telegraphs that it's largely fictionalized but the events themselves actually happened. How could that not be interesting? Add Tom Hanks to the mix and you've got a perfectly watchable movie in spite of its flaws.

Tom Hanks is the critical connection between opposing forces in BRIDGE OF SPIES.

Overall: B+
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