One would think, judging by the title, that Bridge of Spies, the latest Steven Spielberg film, is a spy thriller, but it turns out to be something subtler, and I think, more interesting. It’s a portrait of a real-life individual, a lawyer named James P. Donovan, played here by Tom Hanks, who found himself unexpectedly in the middle of a geopolitical crisis during the Cold War. The drama is in witnessing a decent, principled man doing his utmost to achieve something good in the midst of an atmosphere of malice and distrust.
The film opens with the arrest in Brooklyn, in 1957, of a man named Rudolf Abel, for espionage. A Russian who was born and raised in England, Abel was recruited by the Soviet Union as a spy. He’s played by Mark Rylance, considered one of the world’s greatest actors of the stage, and Rylance brings a marvelously focused intensity and deadpan humor to the role. His manner is dry and contained—nothing seems to bother him. The government wants the world to see that he will be tried fairly, but each lawyer they ask to defend Abel refuses. Finally they settle on Donovan, attorney for a prominent New York insurance company. It’s an odd choice, but they know about him because he was one of the prosecuting attorneys during the Nuremburg trials after the war.
The first part of the film covers Donovan’s mounting of a defense, and the backlash and vitriol he experiences for daring to defend a Russian Communist is relevant to today’s political climate. A speech made by Hanks about the Constitution in a scene where Donovan is arguing before the Supreme Court is clearly intended by Spielberg and the screenwriters to make a point about the abuse of human rights we’ve seen recently during the so-called War on Terror, and an eloquent rebuke to all the phony justifications for this abuse.
The second part of the film covers the secret U-2 spy plane program and the capture of one of the pilots, Francis Gary Powers, when his plane was shot down in 1960. Donovan is recruited by the State Dept. to help make an exchange in Berlin—Rudolph Abel for Gary Powers. The cat-and-mouse maneuvering that follows is complicated by Donovan’s decision to also try to free a young American student falsely imprisoned by East Germany, a decision that goes against the express instructions of his CIA handler.
The fine screenplay is by Matt Charman with help (surprise, surprise) from the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Bridge of Spies showcases the mellower, more restrained later Spielberg style. This is a solidly constructed, engaging drama with real insight into the duplicity of international relations, a duplicity defied by the straightforward Donovan. I think I like this older, portly elder statesmen version of Tom Hanks better even than his younger persona. He goes beyond the everyman cliché to portray a unique American personality, the man in a suit and tie who surprises you by bucking the system.
Bridge of Spies is a movie for grownups—intelligent and, in its care for the preservation of a sense of humanity in the face of huge political forces, very moving.