Bridge of Spies movie review

Featuring:: Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance, Sebastian Koch and Alan Alda
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Movie website:

Australian release date: Thu 22 Oct

Reviewer: rolanstein
Verdict: A tight, taut, elegantly directed and superbly performed Cold War thriller in the classic mould.

With Speilberg directing, the Coen brothers on the writing team, and Tom Hanks in the lead role, Bridge of Sighs has impeccable pedigree. There is always the danger of grandstanding or ostentatious virtuosity in big name collaborations, but these guys are way past proving themselves or lairising; all are working purely in the service of the piece here. The result is a tight, taut, elegantly directed and superbly performed Cold War thriller in the classic mould.

The narrative, based on the true story of James Donovan, a Brooklyn insurance lawyer who gets caught up in negotiating a spy prisoner exchange in Berlin with the Russians, is chronologically linear and finely honed, mercifully free of plot holes and distracting divergences. It rolls out seamlessly and effortlessly – the mark of talent applied with discipline, and of exhaustive work and attention to detail en route to a consummately professional finished product.

Hanks is perfectly cast and at the top of his game as Donovan, a decent family man whose professional commitment to upholding the principles of law lands him in extraordinary and dangerous circumstances. Reluctantly acting as Defence Attorney at the trial of accused Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (brilliantly played by Mark Rylance), whom the Russians do not acknowledge as one of their own, Donovan soon realises he is expected to merely go through the motions, a guilty verdict and death sentence being a forgone conclusion.

However, he determines to give his professional best for his client and runs an aggressive and defiant defence, much to the outrage of the rabidly patriotic press and public, and to the blinking consternation of his family. When the inevitable (and no doubt correct) verdict is handed down, he persuades the presiding judge to opt for a sentence of life imprisonment, arguing that Abel could be used as capital in future spy exchanges with the Russians. The baying for blood from the gallery (“Hang him! Hang him!”) is a sobering takeaway moment and a timely reminder that democracy harbours some base and ignoble sentiments that are not always contained within its civilising systems.

Donovan’s meritorious argument returns to haunt him when an American spy plane pilot is shot down behind the Iron Curtain and imprisoned, and the CIA subsequently ropes him into a top secret mission to negotiate an exchange in Berlin with the Russians, with Abel as the bargaining chip. Already way out of his depth, he learns of an American student trapped in East Berlin when the Wall was built, and disregarding his brief ups the stakes by pushing the Russians for a 2-for-1 exchange.

Obviously, there is dramatic tension aplenty inherent in these circumstances, but the most powerful and memorable scenes of the film are of the Berlin Wall. The residents of East Germany wake to find soldiers cementing the first blocks. By the next morning, the atrocity is all but complete. Bemused and despairing families, friends and lovers stand divided on either side as the last blocks are dropped into place. This is an almost unbearably poignant cinematic imagining of what it must have been like, superbly realised, horribly claustrophobic – surely one of Speilberg’s most indelible filmmaking moments.

Some later scenes of freedom-seeking East Germans being machine-gunned as they attempt to scale the Wall are gutting.

These mercilessly realistic, tragic Cold War vignettes elevate the film from thriller of excellence to something more important: here is an instance of art communicating a devastatingly powerful emotional reality – the tragedy of the Wall – as only art can.

In a sense, the immense power of these Wall scenes trivialises the rest of the film, which is not to detract from its dramatic and well-managed climax on the heavily guarded titular bridge connecting East and West Berlin, and an acceptably predictable but appropriate resolution that quietly affirms family values, but steers well clear of American flags and apple pie.

This is good old-fashioned filmmaking in the best possible sense. Just shows, when professional expertise is applied without fanfare or self-congratulation to getting all the dramatic fundamentals right, just play straight and the rest takes care of itself.

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