Looking Back at 2010s Films: Bridge of Spies (2015)

25 Nov

By Tanner Smith

Steven Spielberg, one of my personal favorite directors working today, has had seven feature films released this decade: “The Adventures of Tintin,” “War Horse,” “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The BFG,” “The Post,” and “Ready Player One.” What do I think of them?

“The Adventures of Tintin” is good fun; “War Horse” is flawed but mostly powerful; “Lincoln” looks/feels great but I’d come back more for Daniel Day Lewis’ lead performance than anything else; “The BFG” is cute enough; “The Post”…I’ll probably see that one again to be fair, because it didn’t do much for me when I saw it before (but everyone else seems to love it); and “Ready Player One” is also good fun. But the one I have the most admiration for is “Bridge of Spies,” a historical drama made with just about as much grit, conviction, style, and intrigue as Spielberg’s “Munich” and “Amistad.”

What makes this one even more interesting? Spielberg works with a script by the Coen Brothers! I’m down!

Set during the Cold War, when Americans and Russians sent spies to each other’s country in paranoia of each other’s nuclear capabilities, the film follows a New York insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), who is hired to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, who won an Oscar for this performance), who’s been charged for spying for the Soviet Union. Believing Abel deserves a fair trial he most likely won’t get if he doesn’t take the job, he agrees to his case. He’s not able to get his client a “Not Guilty” verdict, but his arguments spare Abel the death penalty because Abel is an honorable servant to his country and he might be useful for a future prisoner exchange. And a prisoner exchange might just be in store, as in a parallel storyline, CIA pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is captured by the Soviets after being shot down in their territory (and failing to hit the self-destruct and/or kill himself, as instructed to do if he were ever caught). So, Donovan is asked to travel to Berlin and talk the KGB and East German representatives into a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers.

All of what I’m describing to you sounds simple, but it’s more complicated than that. Donovan tries his best to defend Abel fairly, while the CIA urges him to push Abel to reveal what he knows, despite Abel being loyal to his country. Donovan becomes one of the most hated men in the country for defending a Soviet spy–his family home even has shots fired upon with his family inside (no one gets hurt, though). We’re told all the stakes for Powers and his fellow CIA recruits if there’s any chance of capture. The CIA thinks a letter from Abel’s wife contains a hidden USSR message. And this is before Donovan goes to East Berlin to meet with the KGB in the Soviet Embassy only to end up with another exchange, this time it’s Abel for an arrested American student for political purposes.

And on and on and on. “Bridge of Spies” is loaded with exposition, as dialogue drives a great deal of the story. You need three key elements to make it work: a great director, hugely talented actors, and more importantly, a sharply written screenplay.

Well, let’s see, we have a screenplay revised from playwright Matt Charman to Joel & Ethan Coen, whose (arguably-) greatest strength is their flair for words. Check one.

Tom Hanks is top-notch as always playing Donovan who knows all the right things to say to get his points across, which for the most part work. Check two.

And Spielberg is on his A-game. Check three.

That’s not to say the entire film is focused on dialogue. Being a Spielberg film, he has unique imagery in his work. For example, there’s an effective contrast between children playing along the newly constructed Berlin Wall and Brooklyn children playing in their backyard (both occur as Donovan looks from the window of an elevated train in both countries), thus reminding him of the freedoms that America is best known for. And there’s a standout scene that shows Powers and his plane being shot down in Soviet territory–everything about this scene is wonderfully executed. It’s exciting, well-crafted, and looks scarily real.

But much of “Bridge of Spies” is dialogue-driven, and in that respect, it also works wonders. It’s a spy cat-and-mouse game, an urban drama, and a conspiracy thriller all rolled into one, and with this director, actor, and team of screenwriters, it’s all highly satisfying. Thank you, Spielberg–you still got it.

One Response to “Looking Back at 2010s Films: Bridge of Spies (2015)”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Top 20 Films of the 2010s–#18 | Smith's Verdict - December 1, 2019

    […] I couldn’t find room for a 2010s Steven Spielberg film on this list (as solid as “Bridge of Spies” was), but at least I still found a lovely treasure from another filmmaking master still going […]

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