If you mix eggs, flour, sugar, and butter, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise when you end up with cake. The same predictable results happen when you mix Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and the Coen Brothers — you get a good movie.
“Bridge of Spies” is the title of that cinematic cake and while it is certainly not the greatest work of anyone involved, it overwhelms you with its competency.
Set during the height of the Cold War, this spy thriller is based on the real-life exploits of James Donovan, a mild-mannered insurance lawyer who finds himself in the center of great political intrigue.
It is a role Hanks absolutely crushes as he Jimmy Stewarts his way through the movie as a man whose moral compass is unwavering even by the pull of political superpowers.
Donovan finds himself thrust into world affairs when he accepts a job no one in America wants, legally defending captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance in a performance so understatedly brilliant it is Best-Supporting-Actor-Oscar worthy).
Donovan distinguishes himself to the point when the young pilot of a U-2 spy plane (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured, Donovan is sent to the edge of the Iron Curtain to negotiate the pilot’s release.
Spielberg is great at this cloak-and-dagger stuff as he whisks his camera around the frozen streets of East and West Berlin with precision. He is a master of pacing and tension even when most of the movie is just people talking.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt they are saying words penned by Joel and Ethan Coen, who wrote the screenplay along with Matt Charman. They really shine at the verbal cat-and-mouse that goes on in the movie’s second half, plus they know just the right point to interject a laugh into the tense proceedings.
The descriptor for “Bridge of Spies” that kept coming to mind was “old-fashioned,” even though that seems like I’m making it easy to dismiss. It’s just this movie evokes the films of the era in which it is set and embraces qualities like decency and courage.
All that makes this movie sound painfully square, but there is a life and energy to the proceedings that is undeniable even as it churns towards its crowd-pleasing, noble finale.
If you can allow yourself the pleasure of seeing masters of their craft simply show up and go to work, then “Bridge of Spies” becomes a deeply satisfying movie. The reinvention of the wheel can wait for another day.
“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.