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A dramatic thriller set against the backdrop of a series of historic events, BRIDGE OF SPIES is "absolutely brilliant and totally riveting" (Bill Zwecker, Chicago Sun-Times). James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a Brooklyn lawyer who finds himself thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA send him on a nearly impossible mission to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot. High stakes and suspense power a story that captures the essence of a man who risked everything, vividly bringing his personal journey to life.
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As he goes to trial for a crime that could include the death penalty, the judge appoints a well-known law firm to represent Abel. The head of the firm, Thomas Watters, Jr. (Alan Alda) appoints James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to handle the case. Donovan is a bit surprised because, he practices insurance law and hasn’t worked on criminal cases in years. As Donovan learns later, Watters and Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) expect a competent defense to show how the American justice system works, but clearly minds have been made up. About all that is left is when the death penalty will be carried out.
Donovan discovers that a search warrant was never issued for evidence used in the case. But the judge rejects Donovan’s plea. When Donovan appeals, both he and his family come under fire, both figuratively and literally. While his appeal to the Supreme Court narrowly fails, Donovan is able to convince Byers to sentence Able to a long prison term rather than execution. His compelling argument is that there are spies on both sides and Able may come in handy in the future if one of our guys is caught. And sure enough, the prescient Donovan is correct. Shortly afterwards, Francis Gary Powers and his U2 plane is shot down over Russia. He is captured alive (much to the chagrin of the CIA), put in prison, interrogated and subsequently sentenced to a long term.
During this time, the Cold War was at its height. The Berlin Wall was under construction separating the city and Germany into 2 states. One controlled by America and Western Europe and one by the Soviet Union. As residents scrambled to get to the West, an American student, Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers) is taken prisoner by the East Germans. It turns out he will be key in the final negotiations. The Soviets and the Americans decide that a prisoner exchange should take place, but neither government wants to acknowledge the collusion, so the negotiations are carried out by civilians. Donovan is recruited. He has now gotten to know Able quite well and likes him if not his assignment.
Tom Hanks is perfect as the “everyman” lawyer. His conviction of what makes America great goes beyond flag waiving and reciting the pledge of allegiance. He believes in what makes the country great is more, including Constitutional guidelines and justice. Fifty years ago, Donovan would probably be played by Henry Fonda or James Stewart. The film is beautifully photographed. Watch for the color changes, not only from America to Russia but especially between East and West Berlin. The scenes in the East are only brightened by snow but even that has a murky tint. The cat and mouse negotiations between Donovan and his “contacts” with the Soviets (who hold Powers) and the East Germans (who hold Pryor) is brilliant as is Hanks portrayal. Highly recommended. One of the best films of the year.
I was in high school when the Berlin Wall was built and U2 pilot Gary Francis Powers was shot down in Russia. I knew much of the story, but there were parts new to me in this film (based on the true events). I do remember the “duck and cover” films in school and the building of fallout shelters. If you are a baby boomer you probably remember them too.
I thought Tom Hanks’ acting was superb but he has such an identifiable look and voice that you can’t help but seeing “Tom Hanks, the actor” rather than the character he plays. That, to me, is the ONLY weakness in this or any film he stars in.
There are four bonus features and they are substantial and really add a lot to the film AFTER you have seen it. The longest one – at 17 minutes – is the “making of” featurette with all the main cast and production crew. In addition there are comments from Gary Powers’ son – who founded a “Cold War Museum”. Next comes an eight-minute short on both the U-2 pane (they are still in operation) and the air force base where some events took of – and where parts of film were filmed. The five-minute film “Spy Swap” focuses on both the bridge where the final act takes place and how it was filmed and lighted. Finally is an 11-minute short on how Spielberg and his director of photography (who lived on the east side of the Berlin Wall) recreated the buildings of the period – including building a long wall for filming.
The film is 141 minutes but goes quickly. This is a period in America’s history that the younger generation will not know of unless they see this film. Like “Schindler’s List”, Spielberg has made a historical film which can be used to teach and lead to discussion.
I hope you found this review both informative and helpful.
The pleasingly unpredictable latter-career Spielberg has chosen to follow his magnificent rumination on the greatness of Lincoln with another category-resistant historical reenactment. Genre-wise, Bridge Of Spies (a reference to the Glienicke Bridge, where spy-swaps are made in shivering pre-dawn Berlin) dances between courtroom drama and espionage thriller. There is plenty of speechifying too, stirring gusts of high-minded virtue: “American justice will be on trial!” It’s a meaty gumbo of Capra, Le Carré and Perry Mason. From Minority Report to Lincoln, another of Spielberg’s enquiries into the nature of American goodness as ordained by the Constitution.