The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Bridge of Spies

Historical dramas like Bridge of Spies serve an interesting dual purpose. If you were alive during the time of the events portrayed, they remind you of what happened, hopefully bringing some new insight. If you weren't around, they suggest that, while the world seems a little scary these days, it was always a little scary. The subject here is the Cold War and an extremely tenuous attempt to negotiate a compromise during that time. Director Steven Spielberg is perhaps the best filmmaker imaginable to bring this material to the screen, given his long history of tackling historical events. He takes what could have been a standard spy thriller and injects it with humanity.

Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy captured in New York City. Eager to show that the United States will have a fair trial even for someone like him, lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is recruited to defend Abel. Donovan is a family man and a great believer in the legal process. The Feds would be happy just to make a good show of things, but he insists on doing his job to the fullest extent possible. Donovan manages to save Abel from the electric chair, which proves to be a good thing when American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured by the Russians. The mild-mannered attorney is then tasked with negotiating an exchange of prisoners. But Donovan also wants to bring home an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), being held in Germany.

The strength of Bridge of Spies is the way it shows just how fine a line James Donovan has to walk. He is not a government employee; he is just a man brought in to do something that the government cannot do for itself. Step by step, the movie shows how he gets to know (and respect) Abel, then goes abroad in an attempt to negotiate between countries that are inherently distrustful of one another, the threat of global catastrophe always looming. Smart dialogue from screenwriters Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen illustrates the delicate nature of his conversations. In addition to avoiding stepping on toes, Donovan needs to constantly think several steps ahead of the people he's dealing with. He has to use his legal instincts to find arguments that might compel them to see things the way he wants them to be seen. That chess game suspense permeates Bridge of Spies

At the same time, the film is much more than a thriller. It's also a tribute to ethics. Donovan is encouraged by the government to forget Pryor and just do whatever it takes to trade Abel for Powers. His belief in fairness and truth win out, though. Donovan doesn't believe it's right to sell out the spy who, as he proclaims, is only faithfully doing what his country asked him to do, just as American spies are. He also can't abide the thought of screwing Pryor just because he has no political worth. Bridge of Spies really focuses on the human cost of a tense situation such as this. While the powers that be on both sides view it as a strategic situation to be overcome, Donovan sees the human side of it, recognizing that people's lives and well-being are at stake. Inherent in this is the idea that hostility between nations exists because the human factor often isn't considered by those calling the shots.

Tom Hanks is superb in the role, and why wouldn't he be? More than any other actor working today, Hanks projects fundamental decency. He has the kind of old school trustworthiness that many actors, in a desire to be edgy or play antiheroes, seem to avoid. Through his efforts, we understand why James Donovan jeopardizes an easy solution in order to achieve a greater good. Mark Rylance is also incredibly strong as Abel, investing him with a stoic sensibility. The spy is simply one piece of a much bigger puzzle, and all he wants to do is function as that piece.

There are a few areas Bridge of Spies could have built on. For example, a subplot involving the toll defending a Russian spy takes on Donovan's family is quickly brushed aside. But for the most part, the movie offers a tense look at the hazards of mediating between enemies. Bridge of Spies even finds some humor in the way Donovan has to walk on eggshells at all times. Spielberg deftly balances everything so that it adds up to a story about the importance of doing things in a fair, even-handed way.

Negotiating can be extraordinarily difficult. When it works, the end result is better for everybody. Bridge of Spies calls, loudly and clearly, for less hostility, more collaboration. The world needed it then. We need it now.

( 1/2 out of four)

Bridge of Spies is rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 21 minutes.

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