A feel-good Cold War melodrama, Bridge of Spies is an absorbing true-life espionage tale very smoothly handled by old pros who know what they’re doing. In its grown-up seriousness and basis in historical conflict, Steven Spielberg‘s first feature since Lincoln three years ago joins the list of the director’s half-dozen previous “war” films, but in its honoring of an American civilian who pulled off a smooth prisoner exchange between the East and West during a very tense period, the film generates an unmistakable nostalgia for a time when global conflict seemed more clear-cut and manageable than it does now. Spielberg’s fourth collaboration with Tom Hanks, which world-premiered at the New York Film Festival and opens commercially on October 16, looks to generate stout box-office returns for Disney through the autumn season.
For people of Spielberg’s generation, the early years of the nuclear era and the stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union represents a significant part of the fabric of childhood. With the passage of time, it’s possible to tell stories of the time without furnishing them with overt propagandistic overlays, and for Westerners there is the added built-in appeal of the “we won” factor and the perception that dealing with adversaries was so much simpler then than it is now.
As their focus in this impeccably rendered recreation of a moment in history, most palpably represented by the building of the Berlin Wall, Spielberg and screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen have chosen a sort-of Atticus Finch of the north, a principled, American Everyman insurance attorney unexpectedly paged to represent a high-level Soviet spy caught in New York. There is no question that Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is guilty, but James B. Donovan (Hanks), a proper and decent family man with a professional dedication to his client and an abiding loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution, has a quick and intuitive read of any legal situation and shrewdly stays at least one step ahead of the game in almost any situation.
The story plays out over a period of five years, from the time when British-born Soviet spy Abel is captured in 1957 to the suspenseful moment in February 1962 when Abel is traded by the U.S. for captured U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down in 1962, and an American student, Frederic Pryor. But the filmmakers’ slight-of-hand skill compresses events dramatically to make it all seem to take place in a much shorter period of time, a feeling accentuated by Donovan’s own impatience to make the wheels of justice and international diplomacy turn far more quickly than they ever actually do.
The wonderfully comprehensive but unstressed detailing of 1950s American life in the opening stretches slides the viewer ever-so-smoothly into the period, with a very different Brooklyn and New York subway system serving as convincing backdrops to the FBI’s pursuit of Soviet agent Abel as he paints a landscape on a lovely afternoon. Plain-faced and nondescript in the extreme (no doubt the ideal for a spy), Abel never breaks a sweat and seems imperturbable no matter how dire things look for him. When asked, repeatedly, by Donovan if he isn’t worried or nervous when faced with great jeopardy, or even the prospect of the death sentence, his typical response is, “Would it help?”
Plucked from the prosperous law firm where he is a partner to represent this resilient sad-sack of a client, Donovan has no chance of winning this case, but uncannily presents a strong argument for not putting Abel to death—his potential as a high-value swap for an American spy at some future moment; as he wryly points out, it’s always wise to carry insurance. All the same, his victory in this matter makes him seem disloyal, even traitorous; fellow subway riders give him the evil eye, his legal colleagues give him the cold shoulder and his house is even attacked at one point.
At what seems narratively like the same time, all-American he-man jet pilot Powers (Austin Stowell) is trained with three others to fly in the U-2 spy plane program, which involves flying slow, lightweight jets at 70,000 feet to take highly detailed photographs of military installations within the Soviet Union. Stationed in Pakistan, these pilots are clearly instructed to commit suicide if shot down deep in enemy territory. But in a stunningly rendered sequence, Powers’ plane is strafed and starts spinning down, while his parachute cord becomes stuck when he tries to bail out. In the end, he survives and becomes the most high-profile American prisoner in the Soviet Union.
With Donovan’s prescient prediction of future events born out, the film elevates to a new level of intrigue, tension and complexity as the lawyer is dispatched to a Berlin about to divided by a wall being built by the East Germans. Spielberg’s fleeting imagery of this indelible moment in history is exceptional and vivid; East German workers toil building the wall’s blocks as citizens hustle to get across to the West before it’s too late and, later, Donovan and other passengers on an elevated train are stunned to briefly witness East German guards gunning down some people trying to make it up and over the wall.
Another scene during this stretch, of an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), trying to get his East German girlfriend across the divide just at the moment when the wall has been sealed up, strikes the only overtly melodramatic and false note in the film to that point. But there are wonderful and fresh scenes to follow, as when Donovan, arriving for a big meeting in East Berlin, is greeted by Abel’s so-called family members, who are obviously actors playing the parts, and a scene in which a very Western-style East German lawyer, Vogel (Sebastian Koch), dangerously roars his Volvo sports car down a snowy street with Donovan as his seriously discomfited passenger.
Amusingly, Donovan, who is lodged in supremely filthy and freezing conditions during his visit, is made to be suffering from a bad cold the entire time he’s in Berlin, all the more reason for him to push things along to a quick resolution so he can return home. Making a trade with the East is very complicated due to Donovan’s insistence that both Powers and the Pryor be returned in exchange for Abel, a deal made difficult because the Russians have the pilot, and the East Germans (who are seen to be at considerable odds with the Soviets on many matters) possess the student. But the American’s shrewd sense of things brings the episode to a dramatic head with a negotiated pre-dawn prisoner swap on the Glienicke Bridge, thereafter popularly referred to by name that provides the film’s title.
Spielberg and his production team bring all of this off with assured finesse and great physical pleasure, with rich contributions by production designer Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, even if the latter’s undue predilection for flooding scenes with window light goes unabated here.
Hanks makes Donovan into another of the actor’s Everyman characters, but one with very particular American “greatest generation” characteristics, such as unselfishness, modesty and fundamental adherence to core principles he’s been raised to value and live by. The actor undercuts any potential sanctimoniousness with a dry humor and reserve of intelligence that makes him very good company indeed.
Rylance, one of the greatest of contemporary stage actors, has to date had only an intermittent screen career, but Bridge of Spies suggests that could be about to change. He brings fascination and very, very subtle comic touches to a man who has made every effort to appear as bland, even invisible, as possible. The entire cast is engaging down the line.
Production: DreamWorks Pictures, Fox 2000 Pictures, Reliance Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, Marc Platt Productions
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Mikhail Gorevoy, Will Rogers
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Producers: Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, Kristie Macosko Krieger
Executive producers: Adam Somner, Daniel Lupi, Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Costume designer: Kasia Walicka Maimone
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: Thomas Newman
Casting: Ellen Lewis
PG-13 rating, 142 minutes