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Review: 'Bridge of Spies' feel-good Cold War history lesson with modern parallels

Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a lawyer approached by the CIA to defend a British-born Soviet spy.

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Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a lawyer approached by the CIA to defend a British-born Soviet spy.

An early scene in Steven Spielberg's fact-inspired Cold War drama Bridge of Spies sets the movie's tone solely by casting. An insurance lawyer played by Tom Hanks is advised by his boss to defend a captured Soviet spy, and the boss is played by Alan Alda.

Tom Hanks and Alan Alda in the same frame is almost too much automatic integrity for the screen to hold at once. They're two sides of the same patriotic mint coin, the celebrity best of everyone. There's no doubt from that moment on that America will be best served by saving someone bent on destroying it.

Bridge of Spies rides that sense of righteousness into the proverbial sunset, a feel-good history lesson with faint parallels to modern paranoia and national security. Spielberg is again telling history in miniature, a pivotal event with a compromising voice, or in this case, two voices.

One belongs to Hanks as James B. Donovan, easily sketched as a solid family man and a firm but fair negotiator in car accident cases. He's approached by the CIA to defend Rudolf Abel, a British-born Soviet spy apprehended in New York in 1957. Just put up a cursory defense and pass along any information Abel spills.

Donovan takes the case but refuses to betray Abel's confidentiality, or take a dive in court. Now he needs to convince Abel of that, and we're treated to the first of too few scenes between Hanks and Mark Rylance as Abel, who isn't a cunning sort of spy but a bookish realist, as near to James in principles as they are distanced politically. This isn't a cat-and-mouse game but two mice in a realpolitik maze.

We've already met Abel, in Spielberg's masterful, nearly wordless first 10 minutes when his guilt is made clear. Yet we're led to respect Abel from the opening frames, studying his face as he does the same in a mirror, painting a self-portrait. Typically a dynamic stage player, Rylance shrinks his posture and voice, making Abel seem harmless so calls for his execution sound worse.

That sentence is avoided when James convinces the judge that Abel might be valuable someday in a prisoner exchange. The opportunity arises when CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet territory, Spielberg's lone concession to action sensibilities. James is called back to negotiate the swap, and Mr. Hanks goes to East Berlin.

Matt Charman's screenplay is just getting warmed up with intrigue and obstacles for James to negotiate, including a third prisoner to spring. Bridge of Spies might become as pretentiously convoluted as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy without a credited polish by Joel and Ethah Coen, adding a measure of wry humor to everyone's maneuvering.

Bridge of Spies is solid work but feels like Spielberg's best intentions as a filmmaker and world conscience on cruise control. The movie is polished and period perfect thanks to longtime collaborators like Janusz Kaminski, whose camera cloaks the Berlin Wall sequences in gripping shadows and grays. The director's Diogenes spirit remains intact, seeking honest men in dark times.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Billy Magnussen, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Dakin Matthews, Will Rogers, Sebastian Koch

Screenplay: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Rating: PG-13; brief profanity and violence

Running time: 142 min.

Grade: B+

Review: 'Bridge of Spies' feel-good Cold War history lesson with modern parallels 10/15/15 [Last modified: Thursday, October 15, 2015 6:06pm]
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