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Spy for a Spy

Spielberg channels le Carré for 'Bridge of Spies'

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DARK AND STORMY NIGHT Tom Hanks shines as a lawyer caught up - in Cold War intrigue.
  • DARK AND STORMY NIGHT Tom Hanks shines as a lawyer caught up in Cold War intrigue.

Bridge of Spies may be one of director Steven Spielberg's best movies, but it still suffers from some of his usual problems. What would be a quick word to the wise, for instance, in a more subtle scene gets repeated, pronounced through close-up, heightened with the strains of Thomas Newman's score.

Lines that justify the Coen brothers credit on the script are here, particularly some comedic hair-splitting about the meaning of buying insurance. But there is also typical Spielberg sentimentalism: Tom Hanks explaining to a government functionary that "all lives matter," as if educated people talked in bumper stickers 55 years ago.

Hanks, continuing to excel as a mature, tricky and tough actor, plays New York insurance lawyer Bill Donovan, who is drafted into the world of intelligencers in the days before the mortar on the Berlin Wall was wet. Donovan is asked by the New York bar to take up the defense of a widely loathed figure, the frail spy Rudolf Abel (fascinatingly played by Mark Rylance). Abel barely escapes the electric chair, kept alive as a bargaining chip for a prisoner (and spy) we want back from the Russians: Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell).

Closer to John le Carré than standard Spielberg, the film mirrors the two different spies' worlds—the courtrooms and prisons versus the set-up of the U-2 reconnaissance program out of Pakistan. Spielberg shuttles deftly between the two sides of the stories, and there are some unadorned words to the wise, passing yet stinging references to how the Bill of Rights has been mangled during our own war on terror.

Facility with the camera and classic flow of images aside, Spielberg is American cinema's reigning history geek. The scenery of Berlin, with the raw cut border through it, is as richly observed as the ghetto in Schindler's List, and the thrilling dialogue-free scenes of Abel's capture at the beginning are replete with those seemingly trivial details that make the past the past.

'Bridge of Spies' opens in wide North Bay release Oct. 16.

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