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Spielberg’s artful storytelling creates a slow-burning spy-vs.-spy drama

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Set largely during the early 1960s, the height of the Cold War, Bridge of Spies tells the true story of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks, The Da Vinci Code), an insurance lawyer who accepts the task of representing and defending exposed KGB agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, Days and Nights). This assignment makes him rather unpopular with the American public.

Things are further complicated when American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell, Whiplash) is shot down over Soviet territory and captured.

Donovan is then recruited by the CIA to negotiate a trade for Abel to retrieve Powers as well as an economics student (Will Rogers, The Bay) arrested on the wrong side of the newly built Berlin Wall.

In a year overstuffed with spy films, director Steven Spielberg offers a refreshing take that relies not on spectacle but on good, old-fashioned slow-burn tension and storytelling. It also raises the flag for classic Spielberg-ian lessons like treating enemies with empathy and finding common ground when discussing differences.

With tensions between Russia and the U.S. rising yet again and another election year approaching, these are lessons as relevant now as they were decades ago.

Hanks imbues Donovan with the actor’s trademark idealistic, Jimmy Stewart, everyman quality; it would run the risk of being corny if portrayed by anyone else. Hanks doesn’t play the lawyer as a holier-than-thou saint. Instead, Donovan is a fundamentally good man who is good at what he does; an extension of Spielberg’s fondness for the classic “right man at the right time in history” tale, demonstrated in films Amistad and Lincoln.

The rest of the cast, while not brimming with huge names, is made up of solid character actors Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Domenick Lombardozzi and Jesse Plemons.

Rylance, in particular, stands out as he gives deadpan and stoic Abel a humanity that allows Donovan — and, in turn, the audience — to warm up to the captured spy and even root for his safe return to his Soviet handlers. Rylance and Hanks share a noticeable chemistry in their scenes together, which makes them some of the film’s best.

If Bridge of Spies has any faults, it is that it suffers from heavy-handed dialogue and imagery that, at times, borders on preachy.

It works best when it isn’t spoon-feeding the audience lessons and instead lets big moments feel earned.

Spielberg does an excellent job of not overloading the film with too much schmaltz. He is assisted by fluid camerawork by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and a score by Thomas Newman.

Joel and Ethan Coen, along with co-writer Matt Charman, deliver a script that is funnier than one should expect from a movie about this subject matter, especially considering its two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

While most of its scenes consist of characters sitting in rooms and talking, Bridge of Spies is one of the most exciting and sincere movies of the year.

Print headline: Beguiling Bridge, Spielberg’s artful storytelling provides viewers with a slow-burning, tension-filled spy-vs.-spy drama.

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