Tom Hanks Makes ‘Bridge of Spies’ a Must-See

It’s impossible to picture Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies with anyone but Tom Hanks in the leading role. At a time when cynicism runs high, especially on the subject of our government, he manages to disarm us with his earnestness, becoming this generation’s equivalent of James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Another actor could have played James Donovan, the real-life attorney who was given the unenviable task of defending a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War…but Hanks makes the character both credible and relatable as few others could.

That’s not to say that this is merely a star vehicle. The brilliant Mark Rylance plays the sardonic spy, Amy Ryan is Hanks’ wife, Alan Alda is his boss, Sebastian Koch is an elusive contact on the other side of the Berlin wall, and Austin Stowell plays the notorious American pilot Francis Gary Powers. Working from a screenplay credited to Matt Charman, Ethan and Joel Coen, Spielberg recreates a time and place that moviegoers under a certain age didn’t experience, when the threat of nuclear war was tangible and schoolchildren were shown informational films like Duck and Cover. (Like most kids of my generation, I actually believed that if I crouched under my desk and turned my back to the schoolroom windows I would be spared the devastating effects of an atomic bomb.)

The film opens in 1957. James Donovan is an insurance lawyer who is recruited to serve his country by defending a high-profile prisoner and giving him his right to due process. After all, that’s the American way. This high-minded attitude isn’t shared by members of the public or the press, who see Rudolf Abel (Rylance) as an out-and-out villain: a dangerous Russian spy who should be put to death. Donovan convinces a stubborn judge to spare him with the argument that he might be useful if there were ever the need to swap for an American agent captured by our enemies. Little does he dream that this will come to pass so soon, or that he will be called upon to negotiate the trade-off.

Austin Stowell-Bridge of Spies-680

Photo by Jaap Buitendijk – Courtesy DreamWorks II / Twentieth Century Fox Film

Spielberg tells this story at an unhurried pace, with his usual visual panache. There are no fireworks in Bridge of Spies, which may put off viewers who are accustomed to movies that cram exposition into a high-energy  opening sequence. But Spielberg is true to the time period in more ways than one, and it would have been wrong to approach this saga in a souped-up fashion. He is aided and abetted by striking locations, Adam Stockhausen’s production design, Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes, and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography. This is the first Spielberg film not to feature a John Williams score, but Thomas Newman does yeoman work in his stead.

Yet in spite of an inherently suspenseful finale, Bridge of Spies lacks the excitement this real-life story would seem to demand. Having approached the material in a methodical manner, Spielberg wraps up his movie in a quiet fashion, subduing the emotional crescendo one might anticipate from a film about one of the most sensational, headline-making events of the 20thcentury. I’m sure this, like everything the filmmaker does, was deliberate, illustrating that a modest hero like James Donovan wouldn’t seek glory or undue attention. But the result, for me, is a restrained reaction to a fascinating story. What I carry with me is boundless admiration for Tom Hanks, who makes the movie a must-see.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

Subscribe to our newsletter


Maltin tee on TeePublic


Maltin on Movies podcast


Past podcasts


Maltin On Movies Patreon


Leonard Maltin appearances and booking


April 2024