It’s no small feat turning a shyster and an enemy spy into national heroes, but that’s the unique achievement of Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” If Jimmy Stewart were alive today, the director surely would have asked him to play James Donovan, a noble New York insurance lawyer roped into providing an alleged Soviet agent with pro-bono legal representation, who later goes on to broker his exchange for two Americans held captive by Commies. Failing that, he’d done one better and cast honorary Boy Scout and all-around good guy Tom Hanks in the role, transforming a potential indictment of patriotic hypocrisy and Cold War subterfuge into a riveting, feel-good time for the whole family (two instances of the “F-word” notwithstanding), putting it on track to top “War Horse.”
Spielberg may as well have gone full “R” with this deliciously shady spy-swap plot, as the richly re-created period drama — which benefits from a crackling Coen brothers script polish — boasts more courtroom time than it does actual cloak-and-dagger intrigue (in one scene, Hanks’ runny-nose hero literally has his cloak stolen off his back by East German street thugs). While the helmer’s mythmaking approach makes for great Capra-esque entertainment, younger audiences may find it terribly old-fashioned — and they’d be right to think so, although Spielberg would be the first to admit it was his intention to play things classical, resolutely shooting on celluloid, while blending aspects of a tony legal thriller with a hat-tip tribute to the rich, expressionistic look of 1940s film noir.
In Donovan, Hanks finds one of the chewiest late-career roles he could possibly hope for, playing the New York attorney with fists balled and belly slightly paunched, simultaneously non-threatening and ready for a fight. Called into the office of his good-old-boy boss (Alan Alda), he has no choice to take a case that he recognizes will surely make him unpopular, defending Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, a remarkable theater actor with a relatively short screen CV), whom the FBI have arrested and charged as a Russian spy.
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Set in 1957, “Bridge of Spies” evokes the era as one of mounting thermonuclear hysteria and alarming groupthink, in which a lawyer who advocates for a Soviet agent can be seen as a traitor to his own country (potentially worse than Abel, who wasn’t American to begin with). “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose,” he jokes, though even his family — his meatloaf-making wife (Amy Ryan), plus three flag-pledging kiddos who practice Bert the Turtle’s “Duck and Cover” drills in class — question his loyalties.
Because this is Hanks we’re dealing with, audiences know what to expect, though the revelation here is Rylance (an actor Spielberg also cast as his forthcoming BFG), who appears utterly transformed — to the few who recognize his typically charismatic screen presence — into a balding, Eeyore-like gray moth of a man. Though there can be no doubt Abel is a spy, the film prefers to depict him as a relatively innocuous painter, earning from us a sympathy that no American citizen would have felt at the time. This is an essential strategy in all that follows, as “Bridge of Spies” depends on our believing that Donovan and Abel are the most noble men in the film, both committed to their respective ideals: in Donovan’s case, “what makes us Americans” (the Constitution), and in Abel’s, doing whatever he’s told to undermine it.
If the basic narrative of “Bridge of Spies” were to take place today and a foreign agent were arrested in New York, the poor sap — who’d surely be labeled a “terrorist,” rather than a “spy” — would be shipped off to some torture-friendly detainment facility never to be heard from again, not assigned a lawyer of Donovan’s caliber. But Spielberg has no room for such cynicism, recasting the Coens’ neo-nihilist distrust of the system as comedy (they reworked “Suite francaise” co-writer Matt Charman’s script, and while he was the one to unearth this terrific true story, the siblings’ fingerprints are all over its telling). Here, profoundly disturbing revelations about how America operates are played for a chuckle, as when the judge for the case (Dakin Matthews) denies Donovan’s request for due process, adding that he hopes his client is found guilty as swiftly as possible.
Simultaneous with all of Donovan’s legal dealings, another spy story unfolds, as the CIA recruits an elite group of pilots to “drive” high-altitude camera-equipped U-2 planes over Soviet airspace. As “Bridge of Spies” repeatedly — and rather eloquently — reminds, the Cold War was one of information, not necessarily weaponry, and in these exciting if somewhat clunkily integrated scenes, we see how America fought for an edge in this intelligence battle. We also meet lantern-jawed Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), who will be shot down in the film’s most dynamic sequence — a rare taste of action amid so many slick wheeler-dealer proceedings.
As it turns out, insurance-savvy Donovan was right to plead that the judge spare Abel’s life, as the Soviet spy now gives America a bargaining chip to trade for Powers’ return — a responsibility that falls to Donovan after Hoffman, the CIA stooge (Scott Shepherd) who’d strong-armed him earlier, returns to beg his assistance. Given the political sensitivities between the two atomic-trigger-happy nations, the Agency insists that Donovan make the deal as a private citizen with no ties to the U.S. government, which suits the film just fine, as it gives Hanks every opportunity to go rogue.
The CIA is only interested in Powers, but Donovan — who tells his family that he’s going salmon fishing in England — has decided that he won’t settle for less than two freed Americans: He plans to bargain for the release of a second prisoner as well, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American economics student who managed to get himself caught on the wrong side of the newly erected Berlin Wall. Pryor complicates things not only for the deal, but for the script as well, though a sappy re-enactment of his arrest does provide Spielberg with the chance to show the construction of the landmark that later came to signify the Iron Curtain.
A scene in which Donovan watches East German escapees gunned down while trying to scale the wall, later echoed by fence-climbing children back home in New York, goes a touch too far, the sentimental girl-in-red indulgence the director allows himself here. Otherwise, Spielberg plays much of what unfolds in the film’s overseas second-act for absurdist humor: With the exception of Sebastian Koch’s enigmatic East German lawyer, the Krauts are all played by odd-looking character actors with silly accents — although to be fair, the crew-cut G-Men aren’t especially nuanced either.
The movie slyly manages to have it both ways, criticizing the sort of blind American boosterism of the era while indulging in cheap xenophobic barbs, as when Donovan criticizes newly christened countries the German Democratic Republic and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for choosing names that are far too long, evidently forgetting the mouthful from which he hails. Spielberg knows where to draw the line, however, maintaining a measure of hindsight-enhanced criticism amid his Hollywood fantasy (the CIA’s willingness to sacrifice Pryor seems especially damning in an otherwise generally Pollyanna-like portrayal).
But it’s hard to object when the artifice is pitched at such a high level, an illusion spun amid top-level contributions from a core team of first-time collaborators that includes sets by Adam Stockhausen (the production designer responsible for building “The Grand Budapest Hotel”), Hanks’ wardrobe of Atticus Finch-worthy suits from “Capote” costumer Kasia Walicka-Maimone and a duly patriotic score from Thomas Newman. Still, where would he be without longtime d.p. Janusz Kaminski, who does wonders here with shadows, while building up Hanks’ heroism from unexpected angles.
One shot in particular, in which a paranoid Donovan crouches behind a parked car in the rain, feels every bit as iconic as “The Third Man’s” reveal of the thought-late Harry Lime standing in a Vienna doorway. And the high-angle climax could be something out of a nouveau Western, as Hanks saunters out onto the snow-covered Glienicke Bridge — the hand-off spot that lends the film its name — and brokers the deal in person. If this finale seems to lack something in suspense, it compensates in poignance. Over the course of the previous two-plus-hours, both Donovan and audiences have grown close to the uncrackable Soviet agent being returned to his bosses. We care more about his fate than we do either of the Americans coming home, which just goes to show that Hanks has done his job.