“This man, my father's friend, he was beaten. Every time they hit him, he stood back up again. They hit him harder, still he got back to his feet. I think because of this they let him live.”
Over the past few years Steven Spielberg has shied away from the big blockbuster productions and settled for historical dramas such as Lincoln, War Horse, and Munich. Now we can add Bridge of Spies to Spielberg’s list of history lessons which counts on some outstanding and understated performances from an A list cast. This is the fourth collaboration between Spielberg and Tom Hanks, and although it doesn’t rank amongst my favorite I still enjoyed the character he plays here. Hanks is James B. Donovan, an insurance attorney with a strong sense of justice who also happens to be a respectable family man. Hanks plays the character very subtly and in a way he reminded me of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch because both characters seem to share a strong moral code and they put their sense of justice above what the community might think of them. Here Donovan is given the task to serve as a defense attorney for a KGB intelligence officer named Rudolf Abel (played masterfully by Mark Rylance) during the height of the Cold War. You can imagine how the public reacts when Donovan begins to take his role seriously and defends this spy. It takes a toll on his family as well, his wife is played here by Amy Ryan and his children by Jillian Lebling, Noah Schnapps, and Eve Hewson. They believe in him, but also seem to be going through a similar conflict. My complaint here is that Amy Ryan is sidelined and doesn’t get to play an important role in the movie.
There is also a parallel story going on as several US pilots are being recruited on a special mission to secretly fly U2 planes over the Soviet Union to gather intel. One of these pilots is Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) who on his first mission is shot down and captured by the soviets. The two plots come together when Donovan is asked by US government officials to try to negotiate a deal to interchange their prisoners. Spielberg delivers a historical piece with precise attention to detail giving us once again another important lesson about humanity’s unsung heroes. Donovan represents the ideal character here with strong moral values that are often forgotten or overlooked in today’s movie. I couldn’t think of a better actor to play such a character than the great Tom Hanks. However the standout for me was Mark Rylance as the soviet spy. It was a breath of fresh air to see a character like this portrayed in such a humane light. He is not the enemy here, he is a man who is doing his job and also seems to share a strong moral code. Rylance gives the film’s best performance and I think he out shined everyone in this film. The great Alan Alda also gets to be on screen for a few minutes although he isn’t playing against type or anything like that.
Political thrillers are rarely in my interest, but I couldn’t let this film pass me by considering Steven Spielberg is the director who has made more of my favorite films than any other. Include a screenplay co-written with the Coen brothers and I was sold. The pacing of the film at times did seem to drag the movie down, but Spielberg treats the material with respect. Kaminski’s cinematography captures the era perfectly and Newman’s score adds to the emotional moments. The 50’s are perfectly captured through the art direction and Spielberg managed to transport us back to Berlin during the construction of the wall. Overall I enjoyed my history lesson once again from Steven Spielberg, but I felt that the film could’ve benefited from more thrills and a better pacing. It’s still a must see in my book.