James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a kind man in a cruel world. Rare considering that Donovan is an insurance lawyer in the middle of the Cold War.
Donovan—who served on the Nuremberg Trails—is recruited to defend a captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), providing him with a competent defense per the United States Constitution. Donovan’s colleagues agree it is his civic duty, and to perform it honorably is the proper American thing to do.
Donovan defends Abel to the best of his ability. If Abel were a U.S. Citizen, Donovan probably could have gotten him off on a myriad of judicial infractions. But the presiding Judge (Dakin Matthews), Donovan’s boss (Alan Alda), and his co-workers aren’t interested in a fair trial. The sixth amendment is here in spirit but not in practice.
Bridge of Spies is director Steven Spielberg’s 28th feature film, and if Janusz Kaminski’s photography didn’t tip you off—this is their fourteenth collaboration—then Hank’s role as sane man pleading for decency in a mad world is a dead giveaway. Based on a screenplay from Joel and Ethan Coen, Bridge of Spies is a little bit John Ford, a little bit Powell & Pressburger, and a whole lot of Steven Spielberg. In all the right ways.
Employing an unusual but inventive structure, Abel’s trial turns out to be the tip of the Bridge of Spies iceberg. While Donovan defends Able, a U.S. U-2 spy plane is shot down over Turkey, and the pilot (Wes McGee) is captured by the Soviets. Simultaneously, a U.S. post-grad student, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is captured trying to smuggle East Berliners over the border while the wall is being erected.
The Americans need their pilot back but couldn’t care less about the student. They engineer a one-for-one trade of Abel for the pilot and employ Donovan—who is a private citizen, thus alleviating any political responsibilities—to broker the deal. But Donovan has his own agenda and finding himself in Oskar Schindler’s shoes, Donovan tries to save as many as he can.
WWII and the Holocaust weigh heavily and silently on Donovan’s conscience and cast a pall over Bridge of Spies. In one of the movie’s most telling scenes, Donovan witnesses a family of five attempting to cross the Berlin Wall, only to be gun down mercilessly while Donovan’s elevated train rolls past. The scene was shot in Kaminski’s childhood neighborhood in Poland, which remains virtually unchained 60 years later.
Although this is extraneous information, it informs the scene and permeates the overall ideas of Bridge of Spies, the world went mad once, and it might go mad again. But the simple plea for civility and humanity in the face of a horrific past and a troubling present might be what saves it.
Donovan explains it simply: he is a lawyer by trade and an American, not by race, but by acknowledgment of the rulebook, the Constitution. When Donovan makes the transition from a lawyer to a spy, he carries those values over. The Cold War was not fought with guns but with cunning and craft. It was a chess game played out on a grand scale. As Spielberg and Hanks show, some played it better than others.
Bridge of Spies doesn’t reinvent the wheel, doesn’t need to, and doesn’t try. Instead, it moves from room to room, character to character, with the knowing confidence of a master at work. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is a damn strong piece of cinema.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Produced by: Kristie Macosko Krieger, Marc Platt, Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Wes McGee
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 142 minutes, Opens October 16, 2015