Monday, January 4, 2016

Movie Review: "Bridge of Spies"

I'm not exactly sure when my Tom Hanks fatigue started. For a while it seemed like he played a similar role in so many movies—the steadfast, unflappable hero, no matter what the situation—and he was involved in producing television shows, plays, etc. Every time I turned around, there he was. And while I enjoyed him in Saving Mr. Banks, I thought his accent in Captain Phillips was a little too reminiscent of the old Pepperidge Farm commercials of my youth.

All of this is prelude to say that I didn't have enormously high expectations for Bridge of Spies, but given the awards buzz the film has been getting, particularly around Mark Rylance's performance, I figured we'd give it a try. And I was very pleasantly surprised, both by the film itself, and the performances, anchored by Hanks.

It's the height of the Cold War and Americans fear the Russians and the threat they may detonate an atomic bomb. A purported Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Rylance), is caught, and Americans clamor for his execution. For reasons he (and I, to be honest) doesn't understand, insurance attorney James Donovan (Hanks) is handpicked by his law firm to defend Abel. But while Donovan is expected to simply give Abel a proforma defense, he is committed to ensuring his client gets the due process he deserves under the law, even if those in the legal system, his firm, his family, and his community disagree.

Donovan's doggedness catches the eye of the CIA, and following the Soviet Union's capture of U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) while on a covert mission, the CIA enlists Donovan's help to negotiate for a trade of prisoners, Abel for Powers. This is a mission unrecognized by the U.S. government, and Donovan is essentially on his own.

He travels to East Germany, which is caught between German and Russian politics, just as the Berlin Wall is being put up. Despite his instructions to the contrary, Donovan pushes Russian and German officials for the prisoner exchange on the U.S.' terms. This sets up a potentially dangerous cat-and-mouse game for all involved.

While I'll admit I rolled my eyes at the unlikelihood an insurance attorney would suddenly be employed by the CIA for delicate negotiations with foreign entities, Bridge of Spies is based on true events. The movie definitely kept me guessing, because I really didn't know how the plot would resolve itself.

I thought Hanks did a terrific job in this movie—he conveyed his fear for his family and his future as he struggled with his need to see justice served. Rylance's performance is funny and understated, and while I don't think it's Oscar-worthy, I do think it deserves recognition. Steven Spielberg's direction is tremendously assured and not showy, and while this film certainly had a message (one that resonates particularly in this time when so many fear ISIS and Muslims in our society), it wasn't too ham-handed in its delivery.

This was an entertaining and compelling film, a reminder that there are still good stories out there to be told.

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