Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Film Review: Bridge of Spies

They've covered the Normandy landings, smooth criminals and airport terminals; now, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg team-up once more to tackle the Cold War in a tense and atmospheric legal drama, Bridge of Spies.

Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn whose expertise and straight-talking, level-headed demeanour in the courtroom has earned him a reputation as one of the most respected legal practitioners in his field. So, when Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an artist and alleged Soviet spy, is brought into custody, the task of representing him in court lands on the desk of Donovan.

What starts out as a fairly straight-forward defence case soon escalates into something much more politically-charged when an American pilot (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet territory and Donovan's mission evolves into the delicate task of negotiating a trade between Russia and America at a time when nuclear holocaust was a very real possibility. Shipped off to East Berlin at a moments notice, Donovan must navigate the political and literal minefields in order to secure a successful trade - and prevent war in the process.

In a year dominated by spy films (Kingsman, Spy, Mission Impossible, The Man From UNCLE), Bridge of Spies stands out as being the most restrained of the bunch; this is not an action-packed, guns-blazing film punctuated with car chases, high-stakes poker games and megalomanic villains. No, Bridge of Spies is very much a dialogue driven movie that focuses on the actors, and the character drama that comes with it.

This allows Hanks to really show off those seasoned chops of his, as well as giving Spielberg the opportunity to do what he does best; to take a simplistic scene, like two actors simply delivering dialogue, and frame it and shoot it in a way that feels smooth, engaging and cinematic. There doesn't have to be huge show-stopping action sequences to make Bridge of Spies a compelling and sublime spy film - because Hanks and Spielberg just serve up quality drama across every single scene and keep the audience hooked from start to finish.

It goes without saying that Hanks is amazing in this film; not only does he suit this era down to the ground, he makes the role his own and assuredly puts in an outstanding performance that can be singled out as one of the best all year. This is particularly noticeable when his case is on the back foot; near the start where Donovan is pleading with a judge to withdraw some evidence, and again later when he is confronted on a snowy Berlin street by some thugs.

Another fantastic performance in Bridge of Spies comes from Mark Rylance, who plays the Russian agent Donovan is tasked with defending. Rylance fills each scene with sombre defiance and unsettling calm, never once raising his voice or feeling daunted by the unlikelihood of his survival. Every scene that he shares with Hanks is an undoubted highlight.

The supporting cast is rounded out with a vast array of talent (Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons), but this film is all about the duo of Hanks and Rylance, a pairing that dominate the film even when they're separated for most of the second half.

The political maneuverings and secret agendas gets a little tiresome come in the end, but Spielberg builds towards a tense exchange on the titular bridge that will have you perched on the edge of your seat; not because we're shown a ticking clock or a doomsday countdown, but because the culmination of this two hour movie boils down to one simple question - will they, or won't they? It's masterful stuff that, even though it isn't particularly showy or flashy, feels like quintessential Spielberg.

The Verdict: 8.5/10

Quality acting, directing and film-making all round from Hanks, Spielberg and co. Bridge of Spies is Spielberg just doing what he does best, and that his buddy Hanks is along for the ride makes this film even greater.

Bridge of Spies is in cinemas across Australia now.

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