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Review: Bridge of Spies



“Christ, I miss the Cold War,” grumbles M (Judi Dench) at one point during the 2006 James Bond entry Casino Royale. Cinematically speaking, so do I.

Even more than with the World War II flicks Hollywood made while that conflict was still raging, there existed an urgency and immediacy in the Cold War pictures produced during that lengthy stretch when U.S.-Soviet relations were, to put it ever so mildly, engulfed in a big chill.

Has there ever been a motion picture on the East-West skirmish as sweaty and as gritty as 1965’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, with Richard Burton as burnt-out British agent Alec Leamas? Has there ever been one as steeped in paranoia as the same year’s The Ipcress File, with Michael Caine as unglamorous British agent Harry Palmer, the anti-Bond?

And speaking of 007, didn’t he get mixed up with Commies in some of the series’ high points, efforts like 1963’s From Russia with Love and 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me?

The Cold War also allowed filmmakers to employ their imaginations in interesting and even unusual ways, using thinly veiled concepts as a way to tackle relevant themes – film noir (1955’s Kiss Me Deadly), science fiction (1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers), comedy (1959’s The Mouse That Roared), and even the historical epic (1960’s Spartacus) all benefitted. The Cold War is now history, and Bridge of Spies is here to serve as the celluloid equivalent of a history book. It’s a measured, tasteful, respectful movie, the sort to which you take your grandparents when a scary Sicario or a messy Black Mass simply won’t do.

It’s a classy, highbrow, important picture, the sort designed to nab Oscar nominations by the fistful. It’s also Steven Spielberg continuing his march toward the status of elder statesman of the American cinema, building on the legacy of his previous two pictures, War Horse and Lincoln, and leaving behind everything that once gave his films their vitality and their juice.

That’s not really meant as a knock on his recent output – heck, I was a fan of War Horse, and Lincoln is loved by millions – but it’s a bit dispiriting seeing him quell his natural talents in order to put out workmanlike movies that could easily have been handled by any Tom, Dick or Ron Howard.

Tom Hanks is typically solid in the central role, even if he’s playing a character who isn’t given much in the way of identifying traits beyond his decency (Hanks’ specialty, of course). He’s James Donovan, a real-life lawyer who was tapped to handle the exchange of captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) for American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), shot down while engaged in a reconnaissance mission over the Soviet Union.

With the swap set to be held in Berlin, Donovan also jockeys for the release of American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bridge of Spies is a fine movie, but there’s little fire in its belly. That’s even more shocking considering the script was co-written (along with Matt Charman) by Joel and Ethan Coen, who have never met a genre they couldn’t goose. The domestic scenes are perfunctory (Amy Ryan, who plays Mom in Goosebumps, here plays Wife), and the emphasis on the Donovan-Abel relationship means that the material involving Powers feels underdeveloped (I’m no Powers expert, but, hey, I did do a school paper on him back in the day!).

And for all his genius, Spielberg does have a bad habit of occasionally overreaching with the sentiment and/or the symbolism, and here he allows a few embarrassing moments to materialize – did we really need to see a bunch of kids climbing over a fence while playing, just to remind Donovan of Germans attempting to scale the Berlin Wall?

Fortunately, these instances that take Bridge too far turn out to be fleeting, with the majority of the picture proving to be durable and dependable, if also a bit weather-beaten.