Bridge of Spies

Year: 2015
Production Co: Amblin Entertainment
Studio: Disney
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Matt Charman/Joel Coen/Ethan Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Jesse Plemons

It's probably impossible for Steven Spielberg to make a bad movie at this point, but Bridge of Spies is another one that'll make you sigh wistfully, remembering a time when UFOs descending through thick clouds or a Tyrannosaurus Rex crashing across a rainy road helped defined cinema.

With longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski lensing and working from a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, Bridge of Spies shows an assured command over every facet of the filmmaking arts. It's just hard to forget the years when every Spielberg movie redefined genres – at times entertainment in general.

It's the story of insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks, as lovable as ever as he veers between self-effacing quips and a constantly pinched, worried expression). When his firm is approached to give a show trial to captured Russian spy Abel (Mark Rylance) at the height of the Cold War, everyone expects the guy to get a token day in court and then go straight to the chair.

But Donovan is one of Spielberg's quietly heroic, principled men – some critics are comparing him to Atticus Finch – and he takes his job seriously, saving Abel from capital punishment and ushering in the second half of the story.

When US Air Force spy plane pilot Gary Powers is shot down over Soviet territory and captured, Donovan's insistence on properly defending Abel seems more prescient than ever. For a reason that's not entirely clear, the CIA approaches him to facilitate a deal to trade Abel for Powers.

Donovan travels to Berlin just as the Soviets are building the Berlin Wall, the Stasi everywhere and fear blanketing the snowy streets like sleet. His cover is that he's carrying out the trade (for Powers and a young American man caught up on the wrong side of the East German blockade) by himself – his CIA handlers have to stay very hands off and offer only minimal support.

It involves meetings that run the gamut from faux-friendly to outright hostile with officials of both the local Soviet and East German regimes, and while there's one or two scenes with real danger (such as when Donavan sees the way the wall guards deal with people they spot trying to cross), it's more of a procedural drama than even a thriller despite the political era it depicts.

Like Lincoln, it's about men talking to try to achieve conflicting aims, the compromises of law and international relations and the people who become pawns in the game. Kaminski achieves a washed out, bleak, war-movie look with harsh white lighting that contrasts the dark shadows of plush law offices and homes in America and the shadows of the New Berlin – although the backlighting is at times so overstated it almost distracts from the foreground action.

If it was any other director behind the helm it might be a great, tense and authentic period piece. Spielberg just has too much baggage as a director and – for better or worse – we expect much more exciting and spectacular movies from him.

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