Bridge of Spies
by Jordan Canahai
Arguably more than any American director in movie history, Steven Spielberg’s work has successfully married populist entertainment with expert filmmaking craft. When firing on all cylinders, his intelligence as a businessman is matched only by his confidence as an artist. Yet even at his most savvy, it’s doubtful he could have foreseen a more fitting geopolitical climate than our nation’s current one for the timely release of his latest triumph, the Cold War drama Bridge of Spies, which ranks as the director’s best and most satisfying film in the past decade. Set in the early 1960s when tensions between the United States and Soviet Russia were at a fever-pitch, the film details the true story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks, admirably channeling the late Jimmy Stewart), an idealistic New York lawyer assigned the thankless job of defending captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against charges of conspiracy. When the spy plane of U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in a harrowing sequence, leading to his capture by Soviet forces shortly after, Donovan is tasked by the C.I.A. with negotiating the release of Powers in exchange for Abel.
Despite the presence of Hanks as a decent protagonist, the wartime setting, and the mission-of-principle narrative the film shares with Saving Private Ryan, the Spielberg film Bridge of Spies is most similar not to his WWII epic, but rather his previous film, Lincoln. Like that historical drama, much of the dialogue-heavy Bridge of Spies unfolds as procedural— placing value on conversation, compromise, and the multifaceted critical thinking required of effective political maneuvering—while taking place in smoke-filled, curtain-drawn government backrooms captured exquisitely by Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Januz Kaminski. More surprisingly, one also detects strong notes of Spielberg’s light-footed, 60s-set caper Catch Me if You Can, thanks to writers Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen’s economic screenplay which pointedly satires the groupthink and hysteria that defined the Cold War and prevents the film from becoming stately to a fault.
Even though Spielberg can’t resist dressing the film’s ending in his trademark sentimental glow, Bridge of Spies finds the most popular filmmaker of his generation in complete command of his extraordinary talent, utilized in service of a story which asks Americans to remember how great our country can be when we hold true to our core values against the tides of history.
Watch the trailer for Bridge of Spies
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