Oh them pesky spies… Steven Spielberg’s Cold War biodrama, Bridge of Spies, is the ‘based on true events’ story of an insurance-lawyer-turned-spy-exchange-negotiator-extraordinaire, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), which took place at the height of American-USSR tensions in the 1950s. The fourth Hanks-Spielberg collaboration, but the first since 2004’s airport drama The Terminal, the film is co-written by the Coen brothers – who built upon Matt Charman’s initial script – and co-stars thesp-legend Mark Rylance.
A big-shot insurance lawyer hanging fellow professionals out to dry with his persuasive no-holds-barred attitude, James Donovan’s at the top of his legal game. Yet when a suspected Soviet spy (Rylance’s Rudolf Abel) is reprimanded by the FBI, the legal eagle is called up to represent the most hated man in America.
“I think you’re going to have to defend the son-of-a-bitch,” declares Donovan’s boss, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) – a situation which, for the father-of-three, becomes reputational death by association to a man seen as a U.S. traitor.
Lawyering up the secret-stealer was seen as a sign of American democracy, rubbing the supposed strength of the U.S. legal system in the world’s face, and, for Donovan, not just a patriotic act, but the right thing to do – yet at what cost? A wittering wife, argumentative coppers and bullets through his family home’s window; defending a spy’s a big no-no.
Helping Abel to avoid the death penalty on grounds that it would set a dangerous precedent, when a U2 spy plane is shot down and captured above the USSR, the law man – on the say so of the CIA – is tasked, secretively, to facilitate an exchange: Abel for U.S. pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) – yet things, quickly, get a little more complicated…
In the one corner a by-the-book lawyer attempting to defend – as is his constitutional right – an all-but-convicted man, whilst in the other a nation determined to see the back of a supposed traitor: Spielberg’s latest doesn’t dwell on arms race dealings, but the mind-sets of two individuals (Donovan and Alda) and one proud nation (U.S.). What’s right and what’s wrong, both legally and morally? What constitutes a traitor when the ridiculously calm looking man on trial isn’t even a citizen? It’s a battle of moralities that the experienced lawyer, with an unnerving belief system – is determined to see through to the end.
Like a pantomime “merry-go-round”, international relations soon become a long, drawn out theatre show as the three nations (as the increasingly messy East Germany jump into the fun and games) throw their lot in amongst the fake letters, hired actors and gin drinking negotiation sit-downs. It all adds to the confusion of negotiations – with the added issue of American Economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rodgers) now amongst the exchange mix – which, although messy – and, at times, somewhat less focused than the film’s strong opening – never feel overwhelming.
The ever-loveable Castaway star leads well, but it’s Rylance’s scene-stealing portrayal of the never-worried painter/Soviet spy – through well-timed moments of silence and his humorous as-cool-as-a-cucumber attitude (“Would it help if I was?) – which is Bridge of Spies biggest, yet sadly underused, gem.
From zero to hero: Hanks’ lawyer act makes for compelling viewing in amongst a feature that – whilst asking lots of philosophical questions, and answering the majority – still manages to capture the uncomfortable atmosphere of the Cold War era in un-showy fashion. The film’s finale – a bridge-related rendezvous – in some ways surprisingly mundane, fits this sense of show – yet a few bars higher up on the intensity scale wouldn’t have gone a miss.
Intelligent and thought-provoking – with a touch of snow, a breath of cold air and an increasingly sniffily Hanks – Bridge of Spies is an impressively atmospheric treat, with two lead performances to match; Spielberg’s Cold War piece is a matter of the mind, not the Atomic Bomb.