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Bridge of Spies

In 1957, a Russian spy is captured in Brooklyn and insurance lawyer James Donovan is given the thankless task of being his defense lawyer in court. When an American spy is shot down over the Soviet Union, however, Donovan is asked to negotiate the trade between the two men in the now divided Berlin, and must tread a tightrope so treacherous, it could not only get himself captured or killed, but cause tensions between the two countries to blow.

Tom Hanks gives a wonderful performance as Donovan, dutiful to his job, the Constitution, and the practice of law, as do the rest of the cast, especially Mark Rylance as the captured Russian spy Rudolph Abel, and Mikhail Gorevoy as a contact who Donovan meets at the Russian embassy in Berlin (who reminded me a lot of Peter Lorre).

Spielberg perfectly captures the look and feel of the 50s era both in America and the split Berlin. With America, its not only the lighthearted nostalgic stuff like the cars, the wardrobe, and the media (77 Sunset Strip and Duck and Cover) but also the paranoia and hatred for the Soviet Union.

This is masterfully done in two scenes: one when Donovan is riding the subway while the other passengers are reading newspapers and they slowly realize Donovan is the defense lawyer for Abel and start to give him the evil eye. Two, when Donovan's son and his classmates are watching Duck and Cover and you can see the terror in their faces as they watch the bombs go off. Both scenes were just so powerfully and nerve wrackingly shot. (I had to laugh though at a scene following the latter when Donovan's son fills all the sinks and bathtubs with water so they could be prepared for when the bombs drop, because I remember hearing Spielberg tell that story in a documentary and knew that was a personal moment of his.

The conditions in East and West Berlin are also hauntingly portrayed as both areas are starting to deteriorate with fear and anguish as family and friends are separated from each other by the newly built Berlin Wall; the terror as people trying to cross are killed or detained, stirring echoes of Schindler's List. What I think the film does best is its slow building of the characters' processes with the addition of tension, such as the opening with Abel going through his daily routine while being tailed by FBI agents. But the film also has a refreshing willingness to look past the paranoia and hatred to humanize the important characters.

While not as impactful as something like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, or even something out of Spielberg's pure entertainment films like Jaws, there are enough tension filled moments peppered throughout to keep you interested and on edge throughout the story, especially when it shows the dangers of Soviet occupied Berlin and certain pickles that Donovan gets caught in, like with the guards or a street gang in East Berlin, and especially the climatic scene at the bridge where its a waiting game.

At the same time though with that climax, I felt uplifted and heartwarmed because the relationship between Donovan and Abel was shown to have really grown and you got to see them all as real characters and human beings: Abel was not an evil scheming spy but just a man doing his job and willing to die for it, Powers, the captured pilot, was not just shown as some coward but a man who did his job, protected secrets, but was not willing to die for it, etc and I think that really helped the movie stand out for me.

Spielberg always does a fantastic job capturing the 50s and I hope he gets the chance to do another film in this era soon (possibly of the sci-fi variety). While not as strong as Spielberg's other historical films like Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List, Bridge of Spies is a solid addition to that side of his library and a side I always look forward to because not only do I love learning about history and culture of the past, but Spielberg always manages to tell a great story about a subject that I never knew before and that makes my love for history and his work that much stronger.

Some people might be off put that Bridge of Spies doesn't have much action in it (which might explain the lukewarm box office) and is mostly talking but they shouldn't let that stop them because the conversations in this film are so well written and filmed that it really works and that should be enough. An old fashioned thriller of the mind like a lot of old Cold War spy movies were. I say definitely see it.

Final Rating: 3.7 stars out of 5.

(Final Note: I find it kind of weird and ironic that both Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis both had new films come out this year and both were solidly good but are having lukewarm box office results, whereas the anniversaries of Jaws and Back to the Future are getting way more attention. The Walk and Bridge of Spies definitely do deserve to get some recognition and box office success at least. Definitely check them out as well.)

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