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26 November 2015

"Everyone Deserves a Defence" — Bridge of Spies Review

When I heard that Steven Spielberg had a new Cold War spy thriller called Bridge of Spies, I assumed it would be about the Cambridge Spy Ring, which inspired a 2003 BBC miniseries that was, I believe, filmed partly in my college, home to the Bridge of Sighs. Other than this missed opportunity, there is little to dislike about Spielberg's film but nor does it push many cinematic boundaries or deviate from the tried-and-tested Spielberg formula.

At the centre of Bridge of Spies is a character that will be intensely familiar to anyone who has seen a Spielberg film before: the nice guy who wants to do the right thing. In this case, the nice guy is insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is given the opportunity — many would say poisoned chalice — of representing Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who has been arrested on suspicion of being a Soviet Spy. "Everyone will hate me but at least I'll lose," he surmises. Donovan is tasked with providing Abel with "a capable defence" and, in case there is any doubt about what the outcome must be, even the judge (Dakin Matthews) remarks: "God willing he'll be convicted."

Donovan's efforts to give Abel his fair trial frustrate and worry even his wife (Amy Ryan) at times, but the two men develop a certain respect for each other. Rylance's portrayal of a softly spoken chap with a slight Scottish accent, who enjoys painting and can't keep track of his false teeth is certainly not your central-casting Soviet spy. Abel seems very accepting of his likely fate; "would it help?" he replies when Donovan asks him if he worried.

Although Abel is, of course, convicted by a jury, Donovan persuades the judge to avoid the death penalty given that Abel is likely to be a useful commodity should any Americans fall into the wrong hands. Oh, and wouldn't you know it? A handful of carefully selected pilots, including a certain Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), have just been recruited into the CIA to fly a series of espionage missions over the Soviet Union. As is well known, Powers' plane was shot down and he was captured by the Soviets.

It then falls upon Donovan, of all people, to travel to Berlin to facilitate the exchange of his former client for his new client, of sorts — Powers. He has some assistance from the CIA but they are keen to keep the government out of the negotiations. Berlin is cold and dangerous and Donovan's unofficial position complicates matters, especially when his own desired outcomes for the negotiation differ from those of his country and when it's unclear whom, if anyone, he can trust.

There are few surprises in Bridge of Spies but that doesn't mean it isn't entertaining and compelling. Hanks's central performance is a solid anchor for the film and his warmth and humour give it a powerful emotional core. Rylance, in a much more understated role, is also excellent, although he reminded me of Danny Boyle so much that it was a little distracting! Visually, of course, the film has all of the Spielberg trademarks, and it touches on big, bold themes like liberty, justice and compassion. The script — adapted by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers from Charman's novel of the same name — is well edited and has just the right balance of lighter, wittier touches and darker, more serious moments.

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