Takes about fifteen minutes to get oriented, but Steven Spielberg’s latest becomes a fascinating Cold War historical drama and gripping grown-up entertainment. Bridge of Spies not just depicts a time of history, it absorbs us in the time and feeling of history. Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who was called upon by his government to perform the thankless task of defending a Russian named Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) for the crime of espionage against the United States. Even if Abel is a spy – some negligible evidence points to the fact he probably was – he is still labeled as a high traitor to the American people, many who want to see him get the death penalty. The judge wants to see a swift and merciless verdict against him.
The guilty verdict is inevitable, but Donovan sees the humanity in Abel, and wants to deter his client from getting the electric chair. It’s during these scenes of act one that we reflect upon how xenophobic our American public was. We catch a Russian suspected of treason, and immediately, the hysterical mass population wants blood. Extending Abel ethical rights and proper counsel doesn’t fair well, either. Television and newspaper reports proclaim Abel is getting a good defense, and so, Donovan’s wife and children become targets of hate violence by angry patriots.
But Donovan has at least one very good and diplomatic reason as to why Abel shouldn’t receive the death penalty: If one of our own soldier spies are turned into POW’s overseas, then any one of them could be subject to swift execution.
Donovan convinces the powers that be of this leverage, and as if preordained, one of our pilots named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) happens to survive a plane crash over the Soviet Union. Our top secret agencies are quite different from theirs: during post-World War II, America felt the urge to treat our POW’s with courtesy, with long questioning, but with the final objective to execute traitors, while the U.S.S.R. would rather not execute but torture American POW’s. It’s also curious that Powers seemed to have committed much more “guilty” acts than Abel.
So we have Donovan to thank for sparing Abel’s life, otherwise the CIA would have never been able to work out a deal. The U.S. and U.S.S.R. agree to work out a prisoner exchange, but to take place on the neutral ground of East Berlin. Concurrently, an American exchange student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is captured by German soldiers. Donovan, ignoring CIA plans, decides to negotiate Abel for both Powers and Pryor. This is an insult in the relativity that a showoff American lawyer is trying to get two men for the price of one. But Donovan is not a showoff, but instead a diplomatic, altruistic man. But he has to prove his points to German and Russian bureaucrats, with wit, one by one.
This would have been a difficult and dense story to tell from most people, but in Spielberg’s hands it has unmistakable lucidity (apropos also to Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers as the credited screenwriters). I was surprisingly bored by the staidness of Spielberg’s previous film “Lincoln,” but this time, there’s an involving heart to “Bridge of Spies.” It’s also easy to forget how valuable an actor Hanks is, but I don’t think anybody could have worn this part of the distinguishable 1950’s man as effectively as he, projecting heft, inherent respect, and making him genuine.
At the movies, we see hundreds of different stories a year. This one has a wow factor because it’s an oft untold story of the Cold War, and we come out of it a little bit wiser ourselves.
135 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
HISTORICAL DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / WEEKEND FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Film Cousins: “Seven Days in May” (1964); “Matinee” (1993); “Thirteen Days” (2000); “The Lives of Others” (2006, Germany).