[Screen It]


(2015) (Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance) (PG-13)

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Drama: A 1950s era insurance claims lawyer is not only tasked to defend an alleged Soviet spy in court, but also to handle the prisoner swap between that man and a downed Air Force pilot now held captive by the Soviets.
It's 1957 and the feds have just arrested Rudolf Abel (MARK RYLANCE) for being a Soviet spy in Brooklyn. Not wanting it to appear he'll be railroaded through his trial, the feds put pressure on James Donovan (TOM HANKS), an insurance claims lawyer who works for Thomas Watters (ALAN ALDA), to defend the suspect in court. James isn't sure he wants the job, a sentiment strongly supported by his wife, Mary (AMY RYAN) -- what with having a number of young children and knowing the public backlash that will most certainly occur. But he eventually takes it as his patriotic duty and sets out to come up with a defense for Abel, something that doesn't sit well with Judge Byers (DAKIN MATTHEWS) who's presiding over the case and has already made up his mind about its outcome. James realizes that, but pleads that Abel's life be spared, just in case the U.S. needs to do some sort of prisoner swap in the future.

That chance comes when Air Force First Lieutenant Francis Gary Powers (AUSTIN STOWELL) is shot down over the Soviet Union flying a recon mission for the CIA. Despite being told not to be captured alive, he is. Presumably based on his previous advice, James is once again tapped by the feds to serve his country, this time as the negotiator for the prisoner exchange that's to take place in Berlin where the communists have begun erecting the Berlin Wall between the east and west sides.

Accompanied to the city by CIA operations officer Hoffman (SCOTT SHEPHERD) but then left to his own devices, James sets off to meet someone named Wolfgang Vogel (SEBASTIAN KOCH) who's reportedly not only the lawyer for Abel's wife, but also for American graduate student Frederick Pryor (WILL ROGERS) who's been captured by the German Democratic Republic, for whom Vogel works. Others who aren't what they initially seem also includes Ivan Schischkin (MIKHAIL FOREVOY), a KGB operative posing as the assistant secretary in the Soviet Embassy in East Berlin. Once James figures out the players and their loyalties, he sets out not only to exchange Abel for Powers, but also Pryor, an audible that threatens to derail the swap and possibly national security as well.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Movies are all about make-believe, even for those based on true events. Beyond the obvious element of having actors play real life people, there are faked visual effects (some obvious, others invisible to all but those behind the scenes), added sound effects and the score, and even the manipulation of time.

Sometimes that's obvious or simply implied as one scene transitions to the next, and at others the passage of time is indicated by an on-screen title that says something along the lines of "one year later." And then there are those that compress time and pivotal moments in such a way that those who are not familiar with the true course of events don't realize what's happened.

Such is the case in "Bridge of Spies," Steven Spielberg's latest offering, a Cold War based dramatic thriller based on real events. As penned by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen, the film begins in 1957 Brooklyn where a near-emotionless older man, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, likely to get an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category), appears to be a simple painter. He receives a call, says nothing, and then proceeds to the riverfront, followed by one man and then others who keep their distance, where he subtly collects a coin attached beneath a surface.

Upon returning to his hotel room, he retrieves a hidden message from inside the fake coin, followed by federal agents raiding his place, looking for evidence to confirm that he's a Soviet spy. Spielberg takes his time with the sequence, allowing it to play out in a way that's probably more akin to real life espionage than what most movies do

We next see Tom Hanks seemingly arguing legal points about the spy, but he's really just doing his life insurance lawyer job in relation to someone else. He's then summoned by his boss (Alan Alda) and a fed who want him to defend the spy in court so that it doesn't look like the spook has been railroaded by the justice system. Hanks' James Donovan is naturally reluctant, as is wife (Amy Ryan), what with how public perception would view such seemingly obvious national treachery.

Nonetheless, he takes the case and proceeds to be a thorn in the side of feds and particularly Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) who's already made up his mind and doesn't want to entertain any procedural claims. Around that time, we're then introduced to Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), an Air Force pilot who's now working for the CIA in regards to flying high altitude recon missions over the Soviet Union.

That's followed by Abel being found guilty, Powers being shot down, and Donovan being summoned, as unlikely as it would seem, to negotiate a prisoner swap between the two antagonistic super powers. That all seems to play out in close temporal proximity, but Spielberg and company efficiently gloss over the fact that Powers was shot down in 1960, and the attempted exchange occurred two years later.

In the overall conception and execution of the story up on the screen, it's not a big deal (unless you're a historian or stickler for accurate details), but it's an interesting move on the filmmaker's part in what amounts to be a solidly told but never quite spectacular cinematic offering. Hanks is good as always, bringing his usual everyman quality to the character that makes him engaging and sympathetic to viewers.

I do like that aside from Hanks, Spielberg has cast most of the rest of the characters with performers not instantly or at all familiar to the eye, thus giving the flick a fresh and, for the spy genre, authentic aura. That also holds true for much of the other spy related material as compared to the usual, more energized Hollywood versions of such tales.

Granted, it takes a bit of suspension of disbelief to buy into the notion that the feds would earmark a civilian insurance lawyer to defend a Soviet spy in court (when any public defender would have fit the bill without question) or that they'd send him to negotiate the prisoner exchange (especially with the safety of the world somewhat at risk, as pointed out by some of the nuclear worries expressed in the flick). Yes, I know it all happened in reality, but perhaps there was a more convincing reason or argument that I either missed or should have been included into the proceedings to make it more believable.

Like the compression of time element, it's not a huge or distracting issue. But I do wish the film came off as thrilling as the trailers and commercials make it out to be. Again, it's good across the board, but little of it thrilled like I felt it could and should have, particularly considering the subject matter and that Spielberg was behind the camera. I wished "Bridge of Spies" was brilliant, but it's undeniably polished, well-acted and a solid piece of cold war era based entertainment. It rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 30, 2015 / Posted October 16, 2015

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