3 stars (out of 4 stars)
This is a good film boosted by good production values and good performances.
The rub? It’s a Steven Spielberg movie. Co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Tom Hanks. We expect greatness. Make that Greatness.
And so while you’ll be interested in one man’s courage under fire, this effort may leave you wanting more Saving Private Ryan-esque gut-wrenching drama and less cerebral Lincoln-esque orations. (It premiered Oct. 4 at the 53rd New York Film Festival.)
The true story is set at the height of the Cold War against the Russians in 1957. Highly regarded Brooklyn insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) is tasked with defending British-born Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in court. There’s a mountain of evidence against him and he’s surely guilty, but per the U.S. Constitution, he’s entitled to a fair trial.
Despite resistance from his wife (Amy Ryan, who has more to do in Goosebumps) and threats galore, Jim honorably stands by the soft-spoken painter. There’s just something about the reserved way that Abel goes about his business and speaks of his family. When he asks his client why he never worries, Abel simply replies, “Would it help?” In James’ mind, he isn’t a criminal; he was just doing his job for his country.
But even after James loses the appeal (not a spoiler), his patriotic duty is only beginning. He’s soon summoned by the CIA to go to Berlin and negotiate Abel’s freedom in exchange for captured American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) in Russia. This is where Spielberg attempts to turn his stately legal drama into a period espionage thriller. He partially succeeds: You can feel the brisk chill as Jim holes up in his downtrodden West Berlin hotel room as well as the uncertainty in the air as he walks along the dividing Wall and then gets bombarded by a gang of youthful thieves.
The film takes a more sobering (read: eye lid heavy) turn as James takes on shifty government officials and lawyers in Germany. He doesn’t have a particularly flashy gift of gab; he’s just a decent guy doing the noble thing. That determination makes these talk-heavy proceedings thought provoking — yet not necessarily edge-of-your-seat stirring. (One stray thought that crosses the mind during a negotiation: Aaron Sorkin would have cracked this script wide open with a single punch-up.)
In fact, it’s telling the only character that shows passion here is the woman posing as Abel’s anguished wife in Germany. There’s already Oscar buzz surrounding Rylance yet the role is too understated to make much of an impact. He’s a sympathetic man only because he’s seen through James’ caring and nonjudgmental eyes. American hero Powers also could have benefited from more fleshing out. In one haunting scene, he’s tortured for information in prison — and yet isn’t seen again until the movie’s last act. (Another stray thought that crosses the mind during a negotiation: This retelling would have been even more fascinating from Powers’ point of view.) Meanwhile, a male Yale student held prisoner in Germany — who later becomes a crucial element of James’ wheelings and dealings — registers in just a few overwrought scenes.
The straightforward morality tale is especially frustrating considering the tantalizing early sequence. As Abel eludes feds on a New York City subway and then stealthily grabs a piece of hidden information stashed underneath a park bench, the intrigue has all the makings of a white-knuckled chiller. It’s almost anticlimactic when Hanks arrives into the picture! Almost. Hanks does the Hanks thing so well that it’s almost criminal in itself.
Still, Spielberg isn’t a master for nothing. And when all the parties finally meet up at the shadowy titular bridge for the big trade, we get to witness humanity — and classic filmmaking — at its finest.
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