Anytime Steven Spielberg releases a new film, it’s reason to rejoice. As one of cinema’s greatest directors, he’s incapable of making a bad movie. Yes, that includes 1941.
He’s capable of making those that are just good to very good, but Spielberg’s films – such as the new Bridge of Spies – normally land squarely in the excellent category.
Spies, which opens in theaters Friday (Oct. 16), represents Spielberg at his best, collaborating with Tom Hanks, a legendary actor with whom he worked on-screen magic before in Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can. The result is the same for that interesting mix of films that range from sober to filled with whimsy and glee. Interestingly enough, Spies is a mixture of both.
A difficult task to pull off, right? Apparently not for Spielberg, Hanks and when you have Joel and Ethan Coen writing the script. For the record Matt Charman receives a writing credit as well. They ably bring those qualities to story of James Donovan, a Brooklyn, N.Y. attorney tasked with two of the most delicate duties in modern American history.
A representative of the U.S. government asks Donovan, who specializes in advising insurance companies in the law firm in which he’s a partner, to serve as counsel for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a man accused of being a Soviet spy in 1957. The U.S. government wants the appearance of a fair trial without actually providing for one.
Donovan offers a vigorous defense, much to the dismay of the judge. Additionally, the fact that he’s doing so makes him a pariah some fellow Americans. It’s amazing how quickly that many in this country want to hold American ideals up to the rest of the free world without actually believing in practicing them. That was the same then as it is now. The similarities are eerie as Spielberg and company capture the paranoia associated with that era.
His defense does little good except in the sentencing phase when he bends the judge’s ear and convinces him to spare Abel’s life by suggesting the Russian could be useful in the future should an American ever be caught spying.
Enter the U-2 incident in which Lt. Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a pilot, is shot down over Russia and captured, making Donovan’s gambit a feat of prescience. That leads the head of the CIA to turn to Donovan, who endured an extreme amount of abuse for defending Abel, for his help in negotiating the exchange of Abel for Powers.
If only it were that simple. What should have been a negotiation between two entities turns into a game of chess between three as the newly formed government of East Germany seeks a place at the world’s table and dangles the freedom of an American student as a bargaining chip.
Watching it all play out on screen proves as intriguing as the politics of the era. What’s particularly brilliant about what Spielberg does his blending of tension and humor – yes, humor – subtle though it may be without sacrificing the former.
That’s not to say that Bridge of Spies is a rollicking comedy. It does, however, have its moments. Some come while dealing with the Russians. Others come during interactions between Donovan and Abel in which Hanks and Rylance put forth an engaging patter that laced with irony, humor and intelligence, making their unlikely bonding all the more believable.
Hanks possesses the talent to work on that level with almost anyone it seems and that includes Spielberg as they make Bridge of Spies one of those films that flows easily. That it includes a message based in the past for those of today makes it all the more enjoyable.
It will be a sure-fire Oscar contender.
Movie: Bridge of Spies
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Rated: PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language
Running time: 141 minutes
Check for theaters and showtimes at Atlas Cinemas, Cleveland Cinemas, Fandango.com and MovieTickets.com