'Bridge Of Spies': Solid Storytelling And Atmospherics Director Steven Spielberg — with some help from script polishers Joel and Ethan Coen — brings echoes of our own modern day to the Cold War.
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'Bridge Of Spies': Solid Storytelling And Atmospherics

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'Bridge Of Spies': Solid Storytelling And Atmospherics

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'Bridge Of Spies': Solid Storytelling And Atmospherics

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Russian airstrikes in Syria have some observers wondering if the Cold War might be heating up again. So a new movie about Cold War brinkmanship could hardly be better-timed. Steven Spielberg's "Bridge Of Spies" is based on a real-life incident. But our critic, Bob Mondello, says it resonates more broadly.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The year is 1957, and Cold War tensions are tense. American school kids are practicing how to duck and cover in case the Soviets drop the A-bomb. Then, we watch as a Russian spy is caught red-handed, as it were. And we listen as the public clamors for his execution. Others worry about due process, including attorney James B. Donovan.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDGE OF SPIES")

ALAN ALDA: (As Thomas Watters Jr.) Here's the indictment.

TOM HANKS: (As James B. Donovan) I'm not sure I want to pick that up.

ALDA: (As Thomas Watters Jr.) The accused doesn't know any lawyers. The Bar committee took a vote. You're the unanimous choice.

JOHN RUE: (As Lynn Goodnough) It was important to us. It's important to our country, Jim, that this man is seen as getting a fair shake. American justice will be on trial.

HANKS: (As James B. Donovan) Well, of course, when you put it that way, it's an honor to be asked. But, Lynn, I'm an insurance lawyer. I haven't done criminal work in years.

MONDELLO: It wouldn't be a good story if everything were easy. Donovan, who is played by Tom Hanks because Jimmy Stewart is no longer with us, discovers the American system of justice has blind spots where foreigners are concerned. He notes plenty of prosecution errors, but can't keep the court from convicting. What he can do is plead for his client's life. Donovan asks the judge to imagine an American being captured by the Soviets. If we execute their guy, he says, we lose a bargaining chip. Five years later, a U.S. reconnaissance pilot named Gary Powers is shot down over Soviet territory, and Donovan gets to play that bargaining chip in East Berlin, where the Soviets are, at that very moment, building a wall and are in no mood to bargain.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDGE OF SPIES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) This is not an equitable trade, sir.

HANKS: (As James B. Donovan) But what you're saying is, if Powers has given up everything he knows, then Moscow would trade? Why wouldn't they?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (As character) He was making photographs from 70,000 feet when he was shot from the sky. People in my country consider this an act of war.

MONDELLO: Screenwriter Matt Charman is the guy who unearthed this true story. And director Steven Spielberg, aided by script-polishers Joel and Ethan Coen, make sure you hear the echoes of our own era in it. These days, we use drones for reconnaissance. Our justice system still struggles to deal fairly with foreigners we regard as enemies, and shortcuts are sometimes proposed and resisted, just as they were then.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDGE OF SPIES")

SCOTT SHEPHERD: (As Hoffman) Don't go Boy Scout on me. We don't have a rulebook here.

HANKS: (As James B. Donovan) You're Agent Hoffman, yeah?

SHEPHERD: (As Hoffman) Yeah.

HANKS: (As James B. Donovan) German extraction?

SHEPHERD: (As Hoffman) Yeah, so?

HANKS: (As James B. Donovan) My name's Donovan - Irish, both sides. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing - one, one, one - the rulebook. We call it the Constitution, and we agree to the rules. And that's what makes us Americans. It's all that makes us American, so don't tell me there's no rulebook, and don't nod at me like that, you son of a [expletive].

MONDELLO: I wish I could report that all of this is riveting in the telling. But apart from Hanks and an understated scene-stealing turn by Mark Rylance as the Soviet spy, "Bridge Of Spies" mostly settles for being solidly told and atmospheric. That said, there is a seven-minute sequence Spielberg brings to life so vividly, it'll catch you up short - the actual building of the Berlin Wall - soldiers laying cinderblocks in the middle of a street, puzzled German citizens, family members on either side, still able to just walk across what is about to become, for decades, an impassable diplomatic line in the sand. Nobody's shooting. Nobody's even shouting, but the tension and confusion are epic. Watching things play out, I realized I'd never seen that moment caught on film before. Much of the rest of "Bridge Of Spies," I kind of had. I'm Bob Mondello.

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