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Bridge of Spies: Spielberg strikes gold with this Cold War entertainer

Aleesha Matharu | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 6:06 IST

If there is one thing Steven Spielberg is, it is a reliable director. Pair that reliability with a script written by Coen brothers and you have cinematic gold.

An old-school thriller set against the backdrop of a series of historic events, Bridge of Spies sees Spielberg team up with frequent collaborator Tom Hanks to tell the story of the Brooklyn-based attorney - James Donovan - that helped negotiate the release of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers in 1962.

The movie begins with what could almost be a silent sequence, in which we encounter Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an unassuming man, who is soon revealed to be a Soviet spy. The year is 1957, when tension about the Cold War is at its heated best.

It's only then that insurance lawyer Donovan enters the picture. Abel has to be given a trial, if only to show to the world the American way of justice, and the task falls upon Donovan.

In this time when America is already consumed by paranoia over what the Soviet Union may do next, Donovan becomes a new symbol of hate for defending Abel.

Even as he faces protests and attacks, Donovan manages to secure for Abel 30 years of punishment rather than instant execution, arguing that he could come in use if an American is ever held by the USSR.

And he predicts it correctly. The scene where the U-2 plane is shot down deep into Soviet territory is a harrowing cinematic sequence. Though Powers was instructed to destroy the plane and commit suicide in case of such an event, he doesn't and is caught by the Russians.

The film, definitely a contender for multiple high-profile Oscar nominations, truly blossoms once Donovan lands in West Germany to try and negotiate the release of Powers and another young American student that has been picked up authorities in East Germany.

A nasty cold

Bridge of Spies is surprisingly warm and funny for a film about the Cold War - a time full of morally grey areas. It doesn't shrink away from the nastiness of the time - people are shot trying to leave East Berlin - but it's still quite optimistic with its character portrayals.

As the deeply principled Donovan, Hanks deftly balances earnestness and humour.

Even when it seems like he won't succeed in getting both US citizens released, he endeavours on, refusing to leave without two for the price of one.

But it's Mark Rylance as Abel who is particularly wonderful, bringing a world-weary humanity to a role that - for all of Hanks' star power - constitutes the movie's entire reason for being.

Though it dabbles in the cloak-and-dagger adrenaline of spy films, it is a war film at heart, grappling with the moral ambiguities and legal complexities of a conflict shrouded in secrecy and confusion.

Donovan's cold all through the negotiations only served to add to the warmth of the film. After all, it is a Cold War.

The extra:

Bridge of Spies is Spielberg's and Hanks' fourth film together. Their previous collaborations - Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, and The Terminal - together took more than $1 billion in combined global receipts according to Forbes.

RATING: 4 out of 5

First published: 16 October 2015, 7:53 IST
Aleesha Matharu @almatharu

Born in Bihar, raised in Delhi and schooled in Dehradun, Aleesha writes on a range of subjects and worked at The Indian Express before joining Catch as a sub-editor. When not at work you can find her glued to the TV, trying to clear a backlog of shows, or reading her Kindle. Raised on a diet of rock 'n' roll, she's hit occasionally by wanderlust. After an eight-year stint at Welham Girls' School, Delhi University turned out to be an exercise in youthful rebellion before she finally trudged her way to J-school and got the best all-round student award. Now she takes each day as it comes, but isn't an eternal optimist.