The Marvelous ‘Bridge of Spies’
Christian Movie Review

Kevin Ott - Editor and Writer for Rocking God's House (small)They just don’t make movies like “Bridge of Spies” anymore.

Well, that’s not true, another 1950s post-WWII movie, “Phoenix,” came out this year, and it was also a masterpiece like “Bridge of Spies,” though I feel slightly biased toward “Bridge of Spies.” “Phoenix” got a 9.5. This new Spielberg film, however, just wins by a nose with 9.7. I’m so very tempted to give it a perfect 10 rating, which is only reserved for films that are so phenomenal that they will likely go down as some of the best ever made — films like “Casablanca,” “Gone With the Wind,” etc.

Steven Spielberg Tom Hanks Brigde of Spies Christian Movie Review At Rocking Gods HouseI wish Steven Spielberg could be around for another 70 years (he turns 70 in 2016, if Wikipedia is to be believed and if I’m doing my math right), so that we could get another 28 Spielberg-directed full-length feature films (though he has 55 credits total if you can his TV episodes and shorts/partial directorial contributions). There’s a perfect efficiency to his directing style, like a marathon runner who has trained for decades and become a master at pacing himself, conserving energy, and applying bursts of speed at just the right moment. He has the perfect touch.

And when you pair Spielberg with one of the great screen actors of our time (Tom Hanks) and Mark Rylance (who plays Rudolf Abel), who is considered the greatest stage actor of our time — along with other superb actors (i.e. Alan Alda, Amy Ryan) — you’ve got a cinematic masterpiece in the works, one for the history books.

“Bridge of Spies” also presents an inspiring picture of what it means to stand by your principles no matter what anyone else says, and not just for your sake but for a greater good. That principled big picture view that treats beliefs and convictions as more important than comfort or convenience — that what’s-best-for-the-community perspective — has become rarer in our self-focused, individualistic Western culture. The way this film brings out that selfless, principled approach to life is refreshing and convicting.

Parent Guidance Issues at a Glance for this PG-13 Movie…

Violence/Gore/Scary Content: Two people trying to escape East Berlin by scaling the Berlin Wall are gunned down and their bodies are riddled with machine gun fire. We see it happen from the perspective of someone on a passing train who is shocked and alarmed from witnessing such violent deaths. A plane is hit by missiles and crashes. A captured pilot is interrogated, and they shine bright lights on him and splash him with water. A gang steals a man’s coat (though without violence).

Sexual Content/Nudity: A man is seen in his underwear.

Language: One f-word, and a few other swear words (scattering of b-words and a-words mostly) sprinkled throughout the film.

Alcohol/Drugs/Smoking: Set in the ’50s and ’60s, characters are seen smoking. Characters drink alcohol during spy-related meetings.

Entertainment Value and Film Craft

Much like the the similar post-WWII Germany-themed masterpiece “Phoenix,” Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” is extremely meticulous in recreating West and East Berlin in the late 1950s. It also recreates 1950s NYC with such detail and atmosphere that for the first few minutes of the film it feels like you’ve been transported out of the movie theater into a time warp. Those first few minutes alone are breathtaking: no dialogue, just the sounds of 1957’s New York City and richly detailed visuals that breathe, smell, hiss, clank, and sing with the life of a mid-20th-century metropolis. Spielberg immerses you in the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures of each environment as much as he immerses you in the story — in this case, the riveting true story of a life insurance lawyer stuck with negotiating one of the most important spy swaps in Cold War history.

Bridge of Spies - Christian Movie Review Rocking God's HouseTom Hanks, who plays the life insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, is as good as he’s ever been, and Mark Rylance — the greatest stage actor of our time — transforms into his Russian spy character with such detailed, breathtaking enormity that the center of gravity of any scene with him in it immediately shifts in his direction. Rylance, under Spielberg’s brilliant magnifying glass, could spend five minutes picking up a paperclip and still make it compelling.
And then there’s Amy Ryan. She has a small supporting role as Mary Donovan, James Donovan’s wife, but I found her performance essential to the emotional satisfaction of the film. She stole the show in her scenes, and in the last scene the complex layers of emotions that she conveys in her facial expressions in that final close-up are astonishing. That moment brought such a satisfying, unspoken wholeness to the film.
It was perfect.
And the other supporting performances in the film added just the right amount of atmosphere, plausibility, tension (or relief from the tension) that the story needed.
And then there’s the whole element involving the U-2 spy plane. The scenes with the plane flying at 70,000 are just stunning. It takes your breath away. The way Spielberg combined special effects with a perfect choreography of events in the air made it wildly realistic and immersive. You feel the impact of the missile as if you were a pilot on the plane. These scenes are definitely one of the big highlights of the film.
As far as film craft, “Bridge of Spies” was as near perfect as you can get.

Themes of Redemption, Speculation about the Film’s Worldview

As mentioned in the introduction, “Bridge of Spies” tells a true story. So we can look at its themes of redemption much the same way we look for such themes in history.

Bridge of Spies Tom Hanks Poster At Rocking Gods House

What stood out to me the most was the steel spine of James. B. Donovan. In his character we see a man who is willing to stand up for what he believes no matter the cost. He’s an idealist, yet he is so shrewd in the way that he negotiates situations that he’s able to apply his idealism to reality in very practical ways. He’s a rare example of an idealist who is actually able to accomplish the objectives of his ideals because he’s such an incredibly gifted negotiator. It r
eminds me of the verse that advises us “to be wise as serpents but as innocent as doves.”

Tom Hanks brings out this side of Donovan in vivid emotional and psychological detail. But, thankfully, it’s not an overly sentimental, heavy-handed portrait or tribute to Donovan. It’s sketched with realism. It feels plausible. In Hanks we see Donovan as a human being who gets cranky but not despairing over obstacles to his goals and who just wants to do his job because he has a cold and wants to get back to his warm home and go to bed. It places Donovan’s amazing exploits within reach of all of our tired, cranky humanity, and the film encourages us with this message: if a real human being like Donovan can stand by his principles even when it could cost him dearly, so can you.

Conclusion: ‘Bridge of Spies’ is One of Spielberg’s Best

This is the highest rating I’ve ever given a movie. I’m so very tempted to give it a 10 (which would place it among the great legendary works of cinema like “Casablanca,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gone With the Wind” etc.), but for reasons perhaps too tangential to explain here, I’m holding back my first perfect 10 rating. I’m not entirely sure “Bridge of Spies” will be as widely trumpeted by multiple generations as the classics mentioned above. But regardless, this film is a stunning masterpiece, overflowing with unforgettable atmosphere and show-don’t-tell moments of brilliant symbolism and clarity. It’s certainly one of the great spy movies ever made, and it’s one of Spielberg’s very best.

And that’s saying a great deal.

My rating for “Bridge of Spies”: [usr 9.7] (See my notes below on the rating scale.)

[Note: if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]


Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:

1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes

2-3 stars = a mostly bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes

4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).

7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).

10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).

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