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Bridge of Spies is solid, gleaming stuff from Steven Spielberg. The Old Master lighting and grandmaster plot moves are virtues almost identical to those of Lincoln. Main difference here: the cold war, not the civil war, sends fissuring shocks into the US body politic. And it’s Tom Hanks, not Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the cranky American hero of a truth-based story.
When it’s not dull, it’s terrific. Even when it’s not terrific, the dullness has crafty winks. “We may be wearing a grey suit,” some scenes say, “but we’ve got joke underpants underneath.” I suspect the Coen brothers. They did the polish on English debut screenwriter Matt Charman’s intricate, richly researched script about a planned prisoner swap in the late 1950s between two high-profile east/west “spies”: U2 surveillance pilot Gary Powers, downed over Russia, and Soviet agent Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance with an arid sad-clown humour. Rylance gets the best recurring gag. “You don’t seem alarmed,” says defending counsel Hanks, later to be chief shuttle diplomat between Washington and East Berlin. “Would it help?” asks Rylance.
Variations on that recur all the way to Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge, famed venue for “Here’s your spy, now release mine.” The film’s nuanced wit and complex plot, teased into 11th-hour suspense by a second Russian-held prisoner, provide the mesmerism the movie’s style doesn’t always have. I tired of Spielberg’s contrast between epiphanic, light-splashed windows in America — land of the free and lucent — and the “Let’s make everything grey” strategy in Berlin. And I’m not sure I wanted 140 minutes of Tom Hanks doing Goody the Cowboy, pulling strings if not pull-string like Toy Story’s Woody, though few could do it better. Bridge of Spies has some hold-ups and blockages. But in the best scenes the traffic flows fluently over the purling, perilous currents of cold war history.
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