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Hanks For the Memories 

Spielberg aims small, strikes big

Tom Hanks stars in Bridge of Spies directed by Steven Spielberg.

Tom Hanks stars in Bridge of Spies directed by Steven Spielberg.

When it comes to the film obsessed, movie geek and critic crowds, there is a divide surrounding the majority of Steven Spielberg's work. A steadily growing chunk believes that he is a softy that always lets sentimentality overwhelm his work, especially in the final reel, while some (and the majority of the public) think he makes damn entertaining movies, regardless of content. I tend to fall into the second camp, although I still have trust issues after Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Bridge of Spies won't move anyone from one camp to another, but it shouldn't need to. It is an excellent film with almost flawless pacing, excellent performances, and a '50s Technicolor aesthetic to Janusz Kaminski's cinematography that will give the movie legs for years to come. It's not quite a masterpiece, but will sit comfortably somewhere in the upper-middle level of Spielberg's filmography.

Bridge of Spies tells the true story of James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is asked by the United States government to take on the case of Rudolf Abel, a Brooklyn man arrested as a Soviet spy in 1957. The government wants to be seen as giving the man a fair trail, even if the verdict is pretty tightly sewn up when it comes to the desired outcome.

It is not a mystery whether Abel is a spy. The excitement and intensity come from the second half of the film, which I won't spoil here, except to say that Donovan must travel to East Berlin during the height of the Cold War and enter into some serious negotiations. The film isn't easily classified as a spy thriller, although there are definitely shadowy figures following our man in the rain and some interesting looks into mid-century spy craft. The film is instead mostly a series of backroom negotiations and courtroom monologues, an inside baseball look at politics and espionage that in lesser hands could have been stuffy and interminable. Fortunately, Bridge of Spies has a few secret weapons up its sleeve.

First and foremost, Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance are perfection as Donovan and Abel, respectively, with Rylance all but guaranteeing himself a Best Supporting Actor nomination. His Soviet spy is instantly captivating, with Rylance adding the slyest bit of humor to the man so he is instantly empathetic. Hanks continues to prove why he is this generation's Jimmy Stewart with an effortless performance of intelligence and nuanced grace. None of this film works if we don't care about James Donovan, and Spielberg was brilliant in casting the one actor it is impossible not to care about. Secondly, the script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers is taut and surprisingly funny. There are scenes that could be directly lifted from a Coen Brothers. movie without changing a word. Everything they put their words to comes across as intelligent and flawlessly executed (except for maybe Intolerable Cruelty), and Bridge of Spies proves that their words can work in the hands of another filmmaker. Plus, Spielberg is smart enough to not put his stamp too heavily on the film by getting out of the way of the script and performances.

Bridge of Spies has some issues in the third act, with a surplus of endings, Lord of the Rings-style, and it lays on some of Spielberg's trademark sentimentality when a little subtlety would have worked just as well. But small flaws aside (the wasting of the always-excellent Amy Ryan is another), the film is a rousing affair that provides an intelligent and thought-provoking night at the cinema.

Bridge of Spies

Directed by Steven Spielberg

Grade: A-

Now Playing at Old Mill Stadium 16

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