Bridge of Spies: Tom Hanks Takes on the Commies

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Image source. Copyright Walt Disney Studio Pictures, 2015.

Like Steve Jobs, Bridge of Spies deals with a guy who annoys everyone around him. Unlike Steve Jobs, however, Bridge of Spies is actually a good movie. It doesn’t try anything innovative, but thanks to the efforts of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, Spies ends up soaring anyway. It serves as a timely reminder that having the courage to stick to your own convictions, even at the cost of your hard-earned reputation, can really make a difference.

Bridge of Spies retells the story of the 1960 U2 incident, when American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) was shot down and imprisoned while flying over the Soviet Union. As the U.S. government scrambles to prevent the Soviet Union from exploiting Powers’ capture, the CIA sends former insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to privately negotiate a prisoner exchange. Donovan previously defended suspected KGB agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in court, in spite of a torrent of threats and hate mail from the government and the public alike. Hard-nosed but a firm believer in the rule of law, Donovan agrees to negotiate Powers’ release, and then goes further: he decides to also try and secure the release of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a graduate student inadvertently captured when he stumbled into East Berlin. The government insists that Donovan focus solely on Powers and forget Pryor, but Donovan refuses to leave anyone behind in the field of battle. At a time when Cold War tensions are running higher than ever and the Berlin Wall is going up, it’s up to Donovan to safely see these two Americans home without provoking either the East Germans or Soviets.

In the hands of anyone else, Bridge of Spies would’ve been a cliché thriller with epic music buildups, melodramatic shootouts, and blown-up climaxes. Not with Spielberg and Hanks. Yes, Spielberg allows himself a little glorifying of Donovan at the end. But for the most part, Spies is refreshingly low-key. It trades histrionics for gritty, behind-the-scenes diplomacy, where a single word can tip the scale between success and failure. It’s not surprising, then, that the screenplay, written by the Coen brothers, wastes no words getting down to business; every piece of dialogue advances the plot forward inexorably, with plenty of trademark Coen humor thrown in for comic relief. You’ll be glued to every single word, because with Donovan, every word legitimately counts.

The ultimate star in this movie, however, is Tom Hanks. Hanks resists any Lone Ranger caricatures; here, he’s simply a man trying to do his job as best he can. He sticks to his work like a bloodhound – quiet, lurking in the background, taking in all the information he can, before leaping for the kill. He’s uncompromisingly tenacious, yet also lighthearted at the most unexpected moments. This is the kind of nuance that elevates Donovan to hero status more than any overemotional glorification piece ever could. Besides Hanks, Mark Rylance also deserves a shout-out for being the funniest poker-face KGB spy ever.

I’ll admit that I’ve never been a big fan of Steven Spielberg’s films. His historical epic films, like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and Lincoln, have their strengths, but too often get bogged down in excessive length and cheap sentimentalism. But in Bridge of Spies, he finds himself on a gentler, better footing. He doesn’t barrage the viewer with dense historical exposition or scenes manipulated to make you cry or laugh: he simply focuses on following Donovan’s story. And by avoiding the weight of his earlier films, he succeeds in imparting his message. Donovan is an unsung hero whose conviction and bravery certainly deserve to be told. It’s a good thing Donovan had Spielberg and Hanks to do it.

Vital Stats:

Bridge of Spies (2015)

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell

Running Time: 141 minutes

Rating: PG-13

Produced by: Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, Kristie Macosko Krieger

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Written by: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen