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NYFF: Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’ Celebrates a Stand-Up Man

NYFF: Spielberg's 'Bridge of Spies' Celebrates a Stand-Up Man

It’s no surprise that “Bridge of Spies” (October 16) is a well-made ’50s spy thriller that recalls a familiar John le Carré Cold War world. Blink and we could be watching Harry Palmer dig a nail into his palm in “The Ipcress File.” But this true Berlin Wall spy exchange story isn’t about the usual intricacies of cloak-and-dagger plotting. 

What Spielberg is after is a character study of an everyman–embodied by his go-to-star Tom Hanks–who is decent, steadfast and true. James Donovan represents what’s best about the United States of America, a lawyer who isn’t shady, a stand-up guy you can trust–even if you are a Russian spy like Brooklyn painter Rudolf Abel, ably played with quiet finesse by Brit theater ace Mark Rylance (“Wolf Hall”). “It doesn’t matter what people think,” Donovan says at one point. “It matters what you did.” 

With his first feature since 2012’s “Lincoln,” Spielberg is celebrating good values here, arguing that doing the right thing is more important than the fight against terrorism — if that means giving up the rule of law. Only Spielberg could get away with this old-fashioned, slow-paced exercise in period style at this point in time (“Bridge of Spies” is backed by distributors Disney/Touchstone and Fox 2000 as well as DreamWorks/Reliance and Participant Media). This film falls in the realm of movies like “Munich” that carefully reproduce a time and place, as Spielberg conjures up molded TV dinners and the fears of the Cold War fostered in little kids in the ’50s (“Duck and Cover” anyone?). A scene with an anxious boy filling up the tub in advance of a Russian nuke comes from Spielberg himself. 

The film falls into two parts, as we are introduced to Hanks as a wily insurance lawyer at the top of his game in 1957 New York who is asked to perform a selfless act for his country: defend a Russian spy, thus demonstrating that the U.S. supplies even traitors with due process. But he’s not expected to actually get him off. “Don’t go Boy Scout on me,” Donovan is warned. 

Spielberg lovingly recreates wintry New York’s gleaming subways, autos, newspaper headlines, popping flash cameras, high-waisted pants and an army of Fedoras as the story movies from court drama to Berlin spy exchange, picking up steam as Hanks’ tough negotiator dukes it out with the KGB and Stasi, and his CIA handlers watch helplessly from the sidelines. Donovan is in one kind of danger in the U.S., as people glare at him over their tabloids on the train and shoot into his Brooklyn home. But he’s in serious danger in bone-chilling Berlin, where the stakes are high and clear. 

Spielberg is in good form. One stunning sequence showing a student on a bicycle, his head skimming the top of the Berlin Wall as it’s being constructed, is followed by Donovan as he looks down from an elevated German train passing over two tall, barbed-wired walls and tower guards — who riddle attempted escapees with bullets. 

Written by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen, the script is well-constructed, with many memorable lines. “You’re not worried?” Donovan keeps asking Abel. “Would it help?” he responds. But it feels like the Coens would know how to make their lines sing in their own well-ordered and controlled tonal universe, while this movie moves within a fake big-studio world. You never forget that actors are speaking their lines.

On the production side, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” Oscar-winner Adam Stockhausen’s stunning production design should be recognized by the Academy, along with Janusz Kaminski’s atmospheric cinematography. Marking Spielberg’s first score not composed by John Williams since 1985’s “The Color Purple,” Thomas Newman’s soaring strings feel a tad heavy-handed. 

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