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Film review: Bridge of Spies – Steven Spielberg’s refreshingly mellow cold war drama

Cold War drama concentrates on historical fact rather than wild action sequences

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 October, 2015, 5:20pm

This Cold War drama about a spy exchange between the Russians, the East Germans, and the Americans tells its story in a refreshingly straightforward way. Co-written by the Coen brothers, and directed by Steven Spielberg, it’s a mellow film which, much like Lincoln, aims for believability rather than excitement.

There are no unexpected twists, and no hyped-up action sequences. Instead, it focuses wholly on the honorable intentions of the main character, who finds himself at the centre of some fraught international negotiations.

This based-on-true-events film unspools in two distinct halves. In the first, the US government calls on insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in a court trial. Although it’s always clear that Abel is going to be convicted, the authorities want more than a show trial, to demonstrate the fairness of the US judicial system to their enemies.

Part two sees Donovan sent to East Berlin to swap Abel for Gary Powers, a captured US pilot. Negotiations are complicated when Donovan decides to get a captured US student thrown into the bargain.

Donovan is portrayed as a Socratic hero who is willing to uphold the letter of the law even when it might clash with national security concerns; his friendship with the taciturn Abel gives the film its emotional resonance. Donovan feels that Abel should be given the rights accorded to a prisoner-of-war rather than a spy. As a result, he and his family suffer cold stares from paranoid citizens who feel he is a traitor.

The filmmakers use some authentic Berlin locations, which lend an aura of truth, and the set designers have done a terrific job recreating the look of the city during the building of the Berlin Wall. Bridge of Spies is a beautifully crafted movie.

Bridge of Spies opens on October 22