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Family Movie Review: Bridge of Spies (PG-13)

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MPAA Rating: PG-13       Length: 141 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 13+. A Cold War drama, the film includes some cursing, some action violence including a plane crash, some torture sequences including someone being deprived of sleep, doused of water, and interrogated, adults smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol, and some death, such as people attempting to cross the Berlin Wall being shot and killed.

On its surface, Steven Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’ isn’t a very exciting film, a talky Cold War picture that relies heavily on dialogue and intrigue. But the points the film makes about honor, courage, and cowardice will resonate.

By Roxana Hadadi

Tom Hanks is on a full-charm offensive in “Bridge of Spies,” and the film is a pleasure because of it.

Last time we saw Hanks, he was negotiating with Somali pirates in “Captain Phillips,” jittery and on edge and desperate, and this performance is a complete 180 from that. As the moral, humanist insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, who believes that everyone – including Soviets and Communists – deserve a fair shake, Hanks is firm, compelling, and reliable. As Donovan, he’s a good man in a sea of men who think they are good, and the difference couldn’t be more obvious.

“Bridge of Spies” is the latest from filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and like his previous Oscar-winning film “Lincoln,” it’s about a certain historical time, a certain historical place, and the negotiations and compromises that went into making that time and place remarkable. In “Lincoln,” that was the end of the Civil War; in “Bridge of Spies,” it’s 1957, the middle of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and spycraft is at a fever pitch. Each side is training spies and sending them into the opposite, gathering intel and demanding obedience. With the threat of nuclear war, anti-Soviet mania is rampant in the United States.

And then the FBI thinks they have caught a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), and in a gesture of good faith in the American justice system, his defense is given to the dependable Donovan (Hanks, of “Cloud Atlas”), who specializes in insurance law but also served in the prosecution at the Nuremburg Trials. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose,” complains Donovan of having to defend a man Americans consider a traitor and who popular sentiment will judge guilty anyway, but he goes ahead with it, because that’s just who he is.

Also who he is is the kind of man who will give Abel his attention and his dedication, and as Donovan ends up defending him better and more thoroughly than his higher-ups initially wanted, things start getting tricky. “Do we need to worry about you?” the CIA asks him, and newspapers plastered with his face on them cause strangers to turn nasty.

But the reality is that the United States is using spies, too, and so when the fighter pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell, of “Dolphin Tale 2”) goes down over the Soviet Union and is taken hostage, Abel becomes immediately important. And when an American economics student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), is detained in East Berlin, additional focus is placed on Abel. Could some kind of arrangement involving all three men be worked out – and could Donovan be involved? Doesn’t the safety of the world depend on it?

“Bridge of Spies,” like “Lincoln” was, is a methodical, thorough, slow-moving film, and so for younger teens, the dialogue-heavy production might not be immediately enthralling. But this is a perfect film for teens, parents, and grandparents because it so fully captures some of Spielberg’s favorite themes about the American experience: about standing up when things get tough, about personal sacrifice for the public good, about courage and honor even in the face of defeat. (Often with heavy-handed imagery and thematic content, but that’s Spielberg for you.) The film makes sure to position the American treatment of suspected enemies of war as far superior to that of the Soviet Union and East Germany, affirming – like last year’s “Unbroken” did – that our greatest generation was responsible for so much good, and older audiences will certainly approve of that.

But none of this would work without Hanks or Rylance, who inject their respective characters with so much feeling – a work ethic defined by a belief in equality for the former and an unflappable, but still matter of fact, loyalty to the country of his blood for the latter. There is a moment toward the end of the film when the two characters see each other again for the first time in a while, and there is genuine respect there, even though these two men are on opposite sides of the conflict and with national ties that should dictate their hatred of each other. That kind of human-to-human interaction, even in the face of unspeakable odds, is, ultimately, what “Bridge of Spies” is endorsing, and its hope for common decency and equal treatment of all is a respectable one.

Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.

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