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Bridge of Spies - DVD Review

Bridge of Spies

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

STEVEN Spielberg uncovers another important chapter in American [and world] history with spy drama Bridge of Spies, which grips by virtue of its continued relevance today and thanks to two riveting performances from Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance.

Set around the Cold War, at a time when the world lived under the threat of nuclear war, the film follows the true story of James Donovan (Hanks), a Brooklyn lawyer who found himself given the near-impossible task of negotiating the exchange of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) for captured American U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), as well as American college grad Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) in East Berlin.

Tasked by the CIA with being able to hold the conversations his government couldn’t, Donovan places his own social standing and safety at risk to hold onto the values he holds dear.

The result is a verbose drama, enhanced by a script given extra polish by the Coen brothers, that manages to grip the attention without too much need for showy set pieces. There is tension but much of the film’s fascination lies in seeing how Donovan is able to negotiate the seemingly impossible.

As a result, it provides a platform for both the film’s lead actors and the issues at hand.

With regard to the former, Hanks delivers another master-class. At times his performance is so subtle that you won’t immediately appreciate the nuances. A fierce patriot, Donovan is also conveyed as a ferocious advocate of doing what’s right; his early assertion that “every person counts” a fore-warning of the way in which he commits 100% to his client, whether Russian or American. And yet there is a calculated presence too… someone able to see the need for insurance for the future.

Yet by the end of the film, that resolve has also been tested, as warm American boardrooms give way to cold East Berlin streets, public opinion on both sides turn against him and lives (including those closest to him) are put at stake. Donovan’s brow becomes increasingly furrowed but his values remain unshaken.

Rylance, too, shines as Abel, finally sinking his teeth into a movie role befitting his reputation as one of the greatest theatre actors of his generation. His Russian spy is a sleight man, a painter, who remains an unassuming presence. Yet thanks to the skill with which Rylance portrays him, we can see the humanity in him even though his status as a spy is never in doubt.

If there’s a criticism, it’s that the central performances are so good, they can come at the expense of the likes of Amy Ryan (as Donovan’s wife) and Alan Arkin, as his boss, who are forced to play largely token roles.

On the issue of the film’s relevance, Bridge of Spies may be set during a different kind of war but it’s themes remain topical, not least the idea of acting with decency even when under a sustained threat of terror and when ethics become blurred. It does, however, also serve to show just how much more complicated the world is now, posing the question of whether Donovan could even negotiate today.

And finally, it shines a light on another under-appreciated hero: a man whose achievements here were just the tip of the iceberg.

Bridge of Spies is a fascinating piece of cinema that marks another triumph for the serious side of Spielberg as a filmmaker.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 143mins
UK Blu-ray & DVD Release: March 28, 2016