"Bridge of Spies" is a Great American Movie
Bridge of Spies (2015) – A “Trash in My Eye” Review

Running time: 141 minutes

MPAA – PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language

DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg

WRITERS: Matt Charman and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

PRODUCERS: Kristie Macosko Krieger, Marc Platt, and Steven Spielberg

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Janusz Kaminski

EDITOR: Michael Kahn

COMPOSER: Thomas Newman

DRAMA/HISTORICAL/THRILLER

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers, Sebastian Koch, Jillian Lebling, Noah Schnapp, Eve Hewson, and Jesse Plemons

Movie lovers and film buffs can agree to disagree about the Academy Awards – who deserved to win an Oscar and did not and also who deserved to be nominated and was snubbed. Well, since this is my little space on the World Wide Web, I get to offer my humble opinions about the Academy Awards.

I often watch films that were nominated for or won Oscars after the Academy Awards ceremony is held so that I can ask, “Was it worthy?” Now, I am turning that into a semi-regular feature. Of course, I'll keep in mind that the Oscar-winning, film-making brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, have said that the Oscars are not “that important.”

My third formal “Was It Worthy?” focuses on Bridge of Spies, a 2015 historical drama from director Steve Spielberg. This American-German co-production is based on the true story of lawyer James B. Donovan, who negotiated the exchange of a Soviet KGB spy, who was captured and convicted in the United States, for an American U-2 pilot, who was captured and imprisoned in the Soviet Union. The film's title apparently refers to the place, Glienicke Bridge, where the exchange of prisoners took place.

Bridge of Spies opens in Brooklyn, New York in 1957. The FBI is watching suspected Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who lives alone as a painter of portraits. Believing that he has recently retrieved a secret message, the FBI agents arrest him. Because he refuses to cooperate, the FBI tries Abel, but the U.S. government wants Abel to get a “fair trial” as counter-propaganda to any Soviet propaganda and also to show the world that America is true to its ideals. [Yeah, segregation and Jim Crow: I get the irony.]

The bar association chooses insurance attorney James B. “Jim” Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend Abel. Donovan, who had previously worked on the prosecutions of Nazi war crimes in the Nuremberg trials, takes his work as Abel's attorney seriously. However, his firm, the prosecuting attorneys, and the judge want Donovan only to go through the motions. When he refuses and puts all his efforts into saving Abel's life, his professional and social position, as well as his family, suffer for it.

Some time after these events, military pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) flies a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, where he is shot down and captured. The USSR proposes a prisoner exchange: Powers for Abel, and Donovan agrees to handle the negotiations. After he arrives in communist East Germany where the exchange is to take place, Donovan finds numerous complications and competing interests – on all sides. If he is to complete his mission, Donovan will have to decide what is the best deal, but his life and freedom will be on the line.

Tom Hanks has been one of the world's best English-speaking actors of the last four decades. If he painted his house, he could make that look like a major moment in another Oscar-worthy performance. Hanks is a true movie star, not a faker like those young white male actors who are treated like A-list talent only because they have appeared in a hit action or superhero movie.

Hanks can carry a movie, and so, he carries Bridge of Spies, and not because this is a mediocre movie that needs to be propped up. Bridge of Spies is a superbly written period piece that deftly balances the social and political arguments and points of contention of the late 1950s and early 1960s with riveting spy drama and international intrigue.

Of course, director Steven Spielberg makes Bridge of Spies a historical drama with bite in two ways. First, he draws out excellent performances from his cast by allowing veteran actors to do what they do best – fashion the characters on the page of a script into characters on the screen that genuinely feel like real people (as is the case with Mark Rylance as “Rudolf Abel”). Secondly, Spielberg captures the tensions of the time and recreates the Cold War as a moody film that evokes classic Hollywood Film-Noir with the gravitas of a muscular stage drama.

Still, the script, the directing, and the supporting actors are satellites drawn to the gravity and brilliance of Bridge of Spies' sun, Tom Hanks. The best of America is exemplified in Hanks' Jim Donovan, and Hanks is up to the task of making this character an exemplar, rather than a caricature spouting corny bromides. When Donovan tells a CIA agent tailing him what the Constitution of the United States means to a country full of people from a multitude of backgrounds, his words ring out from film and become a beacon – the true shining light on a hill.

Bridge of Spies is an excellent movie, but what makes it exceptional is Tom Hanks giving one of the best performances of his career. That Hanks did not receive an Oscar, BAFTA, or Golden Globe nomination for this performance speaks to the fact that we have come to take a great American film star for granted.

9 of 10

So, was Bridge of Spies worthy of its Oscar win in the category of “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role” (Mark Rylance)? Yes, it was a tremendous performance, but surprisingly small. One critic (I can't remember whom) said that Rylance (my words) basically brought levity to a dark and serious film. I think that Rylance's reputation as a humble actor's actor went a long way towards him winning the Oscar rather than it being a fact that he was so much better than the other four actors nominated in that category or any actors who were worthy of being nominated but were not.


Was Bridge of Spies worthy of its 5 nominations in the category of “Best Motion Picture of the Year” (Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, and Kristie Macosko Krieger), “Best Writing, Original Screenplay” (Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen), “Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score” (Thomas Newman), “Best Achievement in Sound Mixing” (Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom, and Drew Kunin), and “Best Achievement in Production Design” (Adam Stockhausen-production design, Rena DeAngelo-set decoration, and Bernhard Henrich-set decoration)? Yes, of course, and I would add that Tom Hanks not being nominated in the “best actor” category is a sin. I think that Spielberg should have received a “best director” nod, but that is less of sin than Hanks' omission.


Reviewed by Leroy Douresseaux


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