4 stars
In a Brooklyn apartment, a middle aged man paints a self portrait. It's the perfect metaphor for all that follows: an interpretation of character, purpose, truth.
It is 1957 and at the height of the cold war, the CIA is tailing Rudolph Abel, a busy Soviet spy active in New York. Across town is James Donovan, a busy insurance lawyer who unexpectedly finds himself defending Abel in what everyone thought would be a quick, 'un-winnable' show trial. They didn't count on his principles – “every man matters” - as Donovan argues for a stay of execution. He also argues that Abel could become useful collateral further down the track. Principled, and prophetic.

Based on true events, Steven Spielberg's outstanding drama is a masterclass in filmmaking. From a tense opening sequence in which the narrative landscape is laid out perfectly, he steps up the action in what echoes To Kill A Mockingbird for a nuclear generation, then twists into a cold war thriller when the anticipated happens and an American pilot crash lands behind enemy lines. Both sides now has something of value, and something to trade. Once again, Donovan becomes the negotiator though far from the comfort of New York as he's sent behind the iron-curtain and into East Berlin.

Exhilarating, entertaining, informative and inspirational in equal measure, Bridge Of Spies is near faultless story-telling from Spielberg (Lincoln), his best film since Munich. There's a beautiful economy in the way he teases out events then circles back on motifs or themes to punctuate the unfolding drama. Consider kids at play, jumping a suburban wire fence near the film's end. He's well served by a buoyant, surprisingly funny script by Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men), no slouches themselves when it comes to gritty, intelligent drama. It plays out with the glorious cinematography of veteran Janus Kaminski and Thomas Newman's dynamic score.

The film belongs, of course, to Tom Hanks. A once resistible actor, his career has been marked by a number of increasingly compelling, singular leads (Castaway / Captain Phillips) which singles him out as the perfect choice. Perhaps the only choice, it's unlikely the film would work without him. In delightfully measured support is Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall). His dead-pan, wryly comic Abel is pure Cohen and gives Bridge Of Spies the yeast it needs to rise.

Such is the energy of Spielberg's direction that this 140 minute film feels considerably shorter: no scenes are bloated, no frames are wasted. Nor does he indulge in his trade mark flag waving (it's kept to the margins), despite the bedrock premise that American values will win. As existential themes raised by Donovan's situation and the world in which he lives are folded into the action, it offers more than the thrills and spills of an entertaining history lesson. But at it's core, this is old-school, nail-biting, spy-thriller movie-making from the best in the business. You can't ask for more than that.


Previewed at Event Cinemas, George St, Sydney on 8 October 2015

Tom Hanks
Mark Rylance
Amy Ryan
Alan Alda

Steven Spielberg

Joel Coen
Ethan Coen
Matt Charman



140 minutes

October 22, 2015
Bridge of Spies (2015) on IMDb
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