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Bridge of Spies review: Big guns red hot in Cold War caper

Oscar winners Spielberg and Hanks reunite for great spy drama which eerily echoes current global events

By Andrew Johnston

Published 27/11/2015

Riveting intrigue: Tom Hanks is drawn into a game of cat and mouse between America and Russia
Riveting intrigue: Tom Hanks is drawn into a game of cat and mouse between America and Russia

Talk about timing. With the world holding its breath to see how Russia responds to Turkey's shooting down of one of its fighter planes near the Syrian border earlier this week and tensions between the West and President Putin's regime increasingly strained, when better for Steven Spielberg to unleash a Cold War thriller into cinemas?

The multi-Academy Award winning director is joined in Bridge of Spies by the similarly Oscar-snaffling superstar Tom Hanks for a smart and engaging adult drama.

Here we have two very safe pairs of hands telling a riveting true story in classy fashion. It's such a dense tale that many other helmers could easily have dropped the ball, but Spielberg keeps us both gripped and entertained throughout, aided by a nimble performance from regular collaborator Hanks.

Eleven years on from their last project together, The Terminal, the duo's winning relationship has not diminished. The dazzling chemistry that made it, Catch Me if You Can and Saving Private Ryan such popular hits is again present here, and it's clear Spielberg and Hanks are having a ball.

Still, the master filmmaker isn't letting his leading man off lightly. The casting of the highly regarded British theatrical actor Mark Rylance in a co-starring role keeps Hanks on his toes, and the numerous scenes featuring the two heavyweight thespians, with their markedly different styles, make for mesmerising viewing.

As for Spielberg, at 68, you could forgive him the occasional dud, but the quality of his output has yet to dip, and Bridge of Spies is another worthy effort.

There's a line to be drawn from Jaws to the movie legend's latest picture, with their shared fascination with the righteous underdog coming up against agenda-led authority figures and unseen nemeses alike.

Named after the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, where prisoners were exchanged during the Cold War, Bridge of Spies sees the USA and the USSR each teetering on the brink of waging war on the other, often provoked by their respective spying activities.

Hanks plays the humble insurance lawyer James B Donovan, hired first to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) and later to use the incarcerated mole as leverage to negotiate the release of an American U-2 pilot shot down and captured by the Russians.

It's serious subject matter, but the film is surprisingly frothy in tone at times, even boasting a few jokes. Under the directorial reins of co-writers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (with Matt Charman), it would likely have been an even more eccentric endeavour, but it's nice to see some of the brothers' arch humour shining through. Regarding Spielberg's trademark action, there are a couple of exciting set-pieces, notably the aforementioned U-2 ejection, but for the most part, it's a talky, thoughtful piece of work, with most of the impact coming from tiny, loaded moments, be it a terse glance from Alan Alda's insurance boss or the runny nose of Scott Shepherd's CIA chief.

As a night at the flicks, Bridge of Spies is solidly enjoyable. As a warning about how close the world once came to nuclear war and how we must never go there again, it should be screened on a loop in the presidential palaces of Moscow and Ankara.

Four stars

Bridge of Spies: (12A, 141 mins)

Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Director: Steven Spielberg

Belfast Telegraph

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