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Bridge of Spies

There’s a great spy story in the middle of this bloated epic

Tom Hanks is sent to East Berlin at the height of the Cold War to arrange a prisoner swap with the Soviet Union in the thriller Bridge of Spies. <<© DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 Pictures>>

James Donovan (Saving Mr. Banks) knows how to strike a deal. The insurance lawyer is used to haggling for his clients. Though his expertise is litigation and payouts, Donovan is asked to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance: Wolf Hall), an accused spy.
    The Cold War colors the case, and soon Donovan is the second most hated man in America, right after Abel. People threaten him in public, shoot at his home and terrify his family. The CIA tails him, pressuring him to break attorney-client privilege. On the other hand, Donovan’s dogged defense of his client grants him some cache with the Soviet Union.
    The USSR reaches out with a deal: trading a captured U.S. pilot for Abel. The CIA thinks it’s a great deal but can’t be involved in brokering it. They ask Donovan to travel to Berlin, where the U.S.S.R. has just finished constructing its wall, and engineer the trade.
    In Berlin, Donovan is on his own once he crosses the wall. He navigates international politics uncertainly, never sure whom he’s speaking with or what he has the authority to bargain with. He is unnerved by the violence around as he tries to stick to the deal: One spy for one pilot.
    Simple, right?
    Not quite. It seems the German Democratic Republic, eager to impress the Soviets and gain status as a world power, captured an American student who had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of the city the day the Berlin Wall was constructed. He’s not a spy, but the East Germans are holding him and demanding an audience with the CIA. Donovan wants to save the kid, but the CIA is interested only in the soldier.
    There is a fantastic thriller somewhere in the middle of Bridge of Spies, but you’ll have to slog through 50 minutes of a boring, heavy-handed setup to get to it. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) is an icon, but his latest effort is a bloated, rambling mess.
    The American action is a Frank Capra-esque tale of a lone man fighting the just fight. Hanks sleepwalks through his Jimmy Stewart knockoff, while around him everyone snarls about communists and the A-bomb. The bright point is Rylance, who gives Abel interesting pathos.
    In Berlin, the movie wakes up. Scenes are tighter, with higher energy; the cinematography plays off of long shadows and harsh lines; Hanks comes alive as he negotiates with dangerous men. It’s Spielberg at his best, meticulously weaving tension and theme into each scene. It’s a shame, then, when the film returns to America for an unnecessary, lifeless coda.
    If you’re interested in a moody spy thriller with gorgeous cinematography, Bridge of Spies should have you enthralled. Arrive about 30 minutes late and dawdle at the concession stand.

Fair Thriller • PG-13 • 141 mins.