ByJon Negroni, writer at
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Jon Negroni

Bridge of Spies is a biographical Cold War drama directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen. It stars Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, and some of the best actors working in television.

This film tells the true story (with some fictional caveats) of an insurance lawyer named James B. Donovan, played by Hanks. He's given the troubling job of defending an alleged Soviet Spy named Rudolph Abel (played masterfully by Rylance) in court. The real trouble, of course, is that this is during the height of the Cold War in America.

As you can imagine, Donovan and his family become targeted as communist sympathizers, resulting in ample acts of hatred and violence, even from the police assigned to protect them. The movie doesn't lay it on thick, but you get a sense for what the hysteria of this time was truly like.

But despite this adversity, Donovan chooses to treat Abel's plight like any other case he would take under the assumption that the "rulebook" trumps his or anyone else's personal beliefs. "Every person matters," he tells his critics, and from there, the movie is full of the steam that makes its long running time feel refreshingly short.

Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan
Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan

I won't give away much of how the story plays out, but it's important to note that the film isn't a long courtroom drama. And it's not even stuffed with heavy-handed speeches about human rights. Granted, it does have those things at times, but it adds and develops as the story goes along. The obvious downside is that little about the film gets fully fleshed out before the resolution.

This Coen brothers co-wrote the script, so you'd expect a more dour film with a hopeless protagonist. But Spielberg's direction is maintained, giving us a more reasonable combination of the talents involved, including novice screenwriter, Matt Charman. The result is a genre film that will impress anyone remotely interested in the art of filmmaking.

Like Lincoln, this movie is mostly built around shady conversations and political meandering. But unlike Lincoln, I was absolutely floored by the writing and character dialogue. It's as dramatic as it is witty, and it's funny when appropriate. All without taking itself too seriously or not seriously enough, resulting in some of the most memorable performances I've seen all year. One speech in particular is certain to earn Hanks a nod come awards season.

Mark Rylance (left); Tom Hanks (right)
Mark Rylance (left); Tom Hanks (right)

Strangely, it's almost a flaw that Hanks is the only actor I can imagine playing James B. Donovan. He's presented as a confident man who doesn't put up with doublespeak, but at the same time, he's charming and likable. It's not an easy ask for an actor, and I wondered at times if the movie was only as good as it was because it had Hanks and Rylance in the forefront.

Parts of the movie, specifically the side stories, aren't quite as good or interesting as the main plot involving Donovan and Abel. And the overall story itself won't impact everyone who watches it. While it's inspiring, the inherent lack of set pieces and compelling conflict keep it from being a classic.

But let me be clear. Bridge of Spies is a masterwork of film and Spielberg's best film since Munich.

It's a solid story made better by how well it's directed. Though ultimately, nothing about Bridge of Spies offers anything new or intriguing about the genre, despite showcasing the best of Spielberg, the Coen brothers, and even Tom Hanks, who's been having an excellent run since his performance in Captain Phillips.

Score: A-
Score: A-

I'm going to give Bridge of Spies an A-

This film has its flaws, but it's still excellence in genre filmmaking and a film I'd certainly watch again. If you love well-written and masterfully-directed movies, you shouldn't miss Bridge of Spies. But if it takes a lot to hold your attention for two hours, then you may want to wait and rent this one.


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