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Bridge of Spies - A Masterpiece of Dialogue

Updated on November 16, 2015

I didn’t know what to make of this one going in. I certainly like Spielberg, but this looked like a milquetoast film intended to bait the Academy. His latest collaboration with Tom Hanks thankfully is one of their strongest. BRIDGE OF SPIES is a film that juggles both nuance and accessibility, and drenches itself in atmosphere, very rarely mis-stepping.

Jim Donovan (Hanks) is asked by his law firm (boss is played by Alan Alda) to represent a man who has been arrested as a Russian spy (played by Mark Rylance). This man is unconcerned with what could potentially happen to him, keeping his cool throughout the entirety of the trial. Eventually Donovan is asked to handle a trans-action of said spy with an American soldier who was taken prisoner when his plane was shot down gathering intelligence in Russian airspace.

The script is the big star of BRIDGE OF SPIES. The dialogue is immersive and flows like poetry. It shouldn’t be surprising that it was co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen. Unlike Angelina Jolie’s UNBROKEN, it looks like they actually wrote this one! It’s nice to see a movie reliant on dialogue where the dialogue is a ball to listen to.

Tom Hanks gives the best performance I’ve seen from him in some time. I like how subtle his performance it is, how restrained. He doesn’t really on prosthetics or mimicry where you can see the gimmick coming from a mile away, he’s compelling without seeming like he ever has to try. Mark Rylance is also enjoyable, playing his character almost as though it’s a comedic performance. This guy is fascinating in how his ability to respond to these risky situations with a cool mindset.

The tension in BRIDGE OF SPIES is developed during negotiations, and this is nowhere near as boring as it sounds. The film delights in the way Donovan employs problem solving, and how he’s able to convince people to give him what he wants. This is the second film in two weeks to employ this in a really effective and entertaining way. I like how when Donovan is in Berlin, the film opts out of using any subtitles for the Germans. It makes Donovan feel like a stranger in a strange land, and it makes his interactions with them (including one very good scene where Donovan is forced to give his coat away) unnerving in the best of ways. BRIDGE OF SPIES has confidence in this character’s ability to do his job, and the script takes active interest in it.

Something that’s cool about Spielberg biopics is his tendency to pick history’s unsung heroes. Oskar Schindler was a man whose story was largely ignored by pop culture, until Spielberg bought him into the limelight by making one of the greatest biopics of all time. Lincoln was hardly an unsung hero, but he had been mythologized, and nobody felt the need to learn about this history or how he did what he did. Spielberg’s LINCOLN re-examined him, giving historical context to what he did, and developing him as a human.

I have some minor complaints. Namely the casting of Donovan’s wife. Amy Ryan is a terrific actress, and gives a good performance, but the age difference between her and Tom Hanks was something that annoyed me. It is not an influential aspect of the film, but it is a nuisance. The other complaint I’d have is that Spielberg lays it on thick with his use of re-incorporation. Sometimes it’s clever, but sometimes the film makes it too blatantly obvious as to what they’re doing. He also hits the symbolism of Donovan being an ‘All-American’ hero a little too hard. These traits aren’t deal-breakers, but the film could have benefitted from a different implementation.

At the end of BRIDGE OF SPIES, a cue card tells us that Donovan was there in Cuba, negotiating a solution to Bay of Pigs. The movie credits him with him with the successful release of 1113 prisoners. James Donovan is an unsung hero, which makes him perfect for Spielberg. BRIDGE OF SPIES is one of his finest films in some time, demonstrating a mastery of atmosphere, story, and dialogue. It is great movie, and is absolutely worth your time.

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