Tom Hanks playing the most hated man in America? What sounds wildly implausible makes perfect sense in Bridge of Spies, the Cold War spy thriller elegantly directed by Steven Spielberg. Based on true events, Hanks plays James Donovan, an accomplished and highly ethical lawyer who is asked to defend Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a British-born agent caught spying for the Russians on American soil. The idea is that the United States judicial system must look impartial even as it trots Abel through the courts en route to the hangman. But Donovan takes the promise of a fair trial seriously, and his spirited defence infuriates many Americans: they’re terrified of nuclear war with the Soviets and regard the principled lawyer as a commie-loving traitor.
Abel is found guilty, but Donovan suggests that the judge abstain from the death penalty – a live enemy agent could be useful for trading purposes should the Russians ever get their hands on an American spy. Eventually, Donovan’s prediction comes true, when U2 pilot Gary Powers gets shot down over Russia while taking reconnaissance photos at 70,000 feet. Donovan had developed a rapport with Abel, and he is asked by the CIA to “informally” negotiate with the Russians when they start hinting about a swap. The negotiations are to be held in East Germany, right at the time the Berlin Wall is being built. It’s crazy dangerous, but Donovan, acting as a private citizen, agrees – well aware he’s crossing over into an essentially lawless communist state with no protection and no clear idea of who he’s dealing with and what their real agenda might be.
It’s a quietly fascinating espionage story, set in a recent past that is brought marvelously to life by Spielberg. All the period details ring true, from the cars and clothes to people’s attitudes. Screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen add sly wit to much of the dialogue. And the extended sequence in East Berlin – filmed in drab shades of grey during winter, and fraught with ever-mounting tension as Donovan finds himself in tricky, simultaneous negotiations with both the Russians and East Germans – is a master class in how to build suspense. The Spielberg of Jaws and Jurassic Park has mostly left behind his amusement-ride movies in favour of weightier, historically themed films such as Amistad and Lincoln. Spies is very much one of the best of these. Add in Oscar-worthy performances by Hanks and the little-known Rylance and this is must-see cinema.
Bridge of Spies ****
Stars Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci star in the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered a massive, decades-long scandal of child molestation and cover-up perpetrated by the local Catholic Church.
The visceral and brilliant British actor Tom Hardy does a gory two-fer by playing twin gangsters the Kray brothers, notorious London villains from the ‘60s who often used swords when striving to make a point.
On a lighter note, the deliciously goofball duo of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are reunited in a comedy where two sisters throw one last house party before their parents sell the family home. What could go wrong?
The Danish Girl
Eddie Redmayne will doubtless turn a few heads in this provocative account of Lili Elbe, a transgender pioneer from nearly a century ago. Directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech).
Sexy and deadly superspy James Bond (a.k.a. Daniel Craig, in his last Bond role) is back and battling Spectre, a sinister crime syndicate whose leader is played by the deliciously fey Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds).