In 1957, the world was a gigantic playground when it came to war and power. On one side of the court stood the Americans and the other side stood the Russians. Each had nuclear weapons and the urge to use them. Each side wanted to know about the other’s weapons in order to gain an advantage. It was like a never-ending game between two equally tough teams with stubborn managers/coaches. Somewhere inside of it all, an insurance lawyer was appointed to negotiate the safe passage of an American pilot caught behind enemy lines. Steven Spielberg’s new film, Bridge of Spies, tells that story in grand detail and with a polish only he owns.
In order to do the film right, Spielberg needed his guy. That guy is Tom Hanks. A man so convincing he could play just about anything. Phil Jackson needed Michael Jordan to create a legend in the NBA with the Bulls and it’s the same case here. Two magicians going back to the streets where they carved classics like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Catch Me If You Can and The Pacific. If there is a war involved, Hanks and Spielberg are the men for the job and everybody else in Hollywood is merely filling out applications.
James Donovan(Hanks) is a insurance lawyer in New York and a good one. He studied criminal law years ago but is just fine helping people prepare for potential hardship in their personal lives. When a case file is dropped in front of him involving the defense of a captured Russian spy, he doesn’t jump at it. After all, tensions were so high back then and what if you were the one guy appointed to defend what the general population saw as a monster? You would be #2 on the unpopular list behind the spy himself. You would be hated. Any other guy would just stand next to Rudolf Abel(Mark Rylance, a sure fire Oscar contender) and wait for the judge to slam his gavel down in a guilty fashion.
However, Donovan believed in the law, the constitution and that every man and woman(no matter their alliance) deserved an equal and fair defense. When he brought the matter to the Supreme Court and barely lost, the world couldn’t understand him. As Abel says later on, “Sometimes people don’t make the right decision. People are people.”
What complicates matters is a US soldier Powers(Austin Stowell, from Ed Burns Spielberg produced show, Public Morals) flying over Russia taking photos of their nuclear weapons sites. When he is shot down, the Russians and Americans attempt to orchestrate a swap. It’s not so easy. This isn’t like going to a Walmart parking lot and exchanging cars. This was Donovan going over into war torn East Berlin to negotiate the deal and when an American student is captured there, the ordeal gets even more complicated.
What sets this apart from a History channel rendition is the work of Spielberg and writers Mark Charman and the Coen Brothers. Together, they recreate this mad ripped apart world where people lived afraid and words meant life or death so the audience can truly be taken away from the theater. The best movies don’t just feature a great performance to rest their head on. They give off the illusion that what you are seeing is happening outside the door and something you could step into. There may not be a better marriage between direction and screenwriting this year. The script doesn’t waste a single word and the editing is flawless. This 140 minute movie doesn’t overstay its welcome or make you check your phone in anticipation of the credits.
The tension, despair and brutality in the East Berlin scenes reminded me of a mixture of Spielberg’s most well known Oscar films, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. The haunting streets with half blown out buildings. The fractured families. The film starts in comfy New York but when it switches to a war zone, the filmmakers pick up the pace and really transport the viewer.
The rest is an acting class in NOT overdoing a script. Hanks takes the punches from the script and slips and jabs his way through his best performance in years. He was born to play the incredibly noble Donovan and properly bring him to life. Another actor may have started chewing instead of simply unfolding the sheet and responding to the words on the page. When Hanks read the script, he called Spielberg to do it. A history buff, especially when it comes to the United States, Hanks brings an urgency and poignancy to Donovan that nobody else(not even Daniel Day Lewis) could have brought. He’s a winner.
Rylance is the real surprise here, playing the supposed spy like a regular old man who doesn’t fear anything, from either country. A speech that Abel gives, comparing Donovan to someone he knew from his childhood, is so well played and touching that it may bring you to tears or just make you smile. You will remember “The Standing Man” speech! Rylance is as calm and cool as a cucumber and I doubt you have seen him in anything. He only has 25 films to his credit and all I remember him from is playing Jason Statham’s partner in a barely heard of cop flick called Blitz. Here, he looks like a pro trading punches with the heavyweights. He embodies Abel with an intelligence and knowledge that few actors can do with a handful of scenes. He’ll be nominated for an Oscar and should win.
Thomas Newman’s tremendous score elevates important scenes in the film, heightening a situation or lending a beautiful grace to others. The thing about background music in movies is that it can enhance an ordinary exchange of dialogue into some poetic. His work here evokes shades of his Road to Perdition and Shawshank Redemption scores.
Here is a film about war with barely any violence in it. All tension. Hanks and Spielberg capture something unique at the movies. A film that is perfectly conceived, meaningful and a powerful history lesson about one man helping two countries connect if for just one moment on a bridge.
You may not see a better movie in 2015 than Bridge of Spies. Skip the hesitation and go see this film. It isn’t just good. It demands your attention. It is easily the best film I’ve see in 2015 and a sure sign that the heavyweights are operating the controls as the make believe desk after a rather ordinary slate of films.