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

Tom Hanks as James Donovan, Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel, Billy Magnusson as Douglas ForresterIt’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-680Spielberg
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 20th
century. 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.


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July 2024