Old school moviemaking know-how marks pretty much every scene of the tense, sleekly efficient Cold War espionage thriller Bridge of Spies directed by Steven Spielberg. Based on real events and scripted by playwright Matt Charman, with dialogue punch-ups by Joel and Ethan Cohen, the action certainly kicks off on a high note.
It’s 1957. Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are explosive. America is throttled by fear and paranoia. The public has been sufficiently terrorized by propaganda fanned and stoked by a complicit media that they willingly shrug-away abuses of the Constitution. Sound anything like contemporary times and our so-called War on Terror? It’s meant to. The film opens with a superb, almost wordless sequence in which Brit undercover KGB spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) puts the finishing touches on a self-portrait in oils in his home near the Brooklyn Bridge. He walks to a nearby park where he retrieves a special nickel from under a park bench, returns home and, as we note spy apparatuses around him – receivers, transmitters, headphones – he’s apprehended, in his underwear, by a pack of indistinguishable Feds. He politely inquires, “Mind if I fetch my teeth?” That first ten minutes is so human, witty, and elegant, among the best things Spielberg’s even done, that even Alfred Hitchcock and John Le Carre might approve.
Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, the righteous, cocky insurance lawyer asked by his company to mount a half-hearted defense of the loathed Abel, who has been vilified in the press and, in turn, by the public. Donovan, an admirably cranky Irishman, will have none of this stacked deck stuff, though. Despite threats to his family from super patriotic Americans out for the kill, Donovan believes that everyone, even a despicable “Commie" like Abel, deserves a fair trial and due process. As played by Hanks in a role that fits him like a glove, Donovan is so noble in an ignoble era that even against a stacked deck, he fights to take Abel’s cause – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington style – all the way to the Supreme Court. Although Spielberg and company make the talky courtroom drama stuff as interesting as possible, most of us will be itching for more spy skullduggery.
Happily it’s on the way once Air Force U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), on a CIA-sponsored espionage mission, gets shot down over Russia, forced to parachute out of his flaming plane, and subjected to a mock trial, Soviet style. This sends Hanks into a new mode and, practically, almost an entirely different movie – a swifter, sharper, more enjoyable one with even snappier dialogue – as he navigates the labyrinthine of politics of East Berlin on a super secret mission to negotiate a swap: Abel for Powers, along with an American economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) studying in Berlin who just happened to get stuck on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. From there, the plot corkscrews, and the nail-biting moments, the government inefficiency, and betrayals just keep on coming.
Spielberg plays things muted and low-key this time out but he leans way too hard on the movie’s Big Messages, just the way Thomas Newman’s score pushes way too hard. The whole thing looks great, though, down to the trademark moody blues of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s exterior scenes, and Hanks gives his most likable, spry and, yes, James Stewart-like performance in ages. It’s renowned stage actor Mark Rylance who pockets the movie, though, with his wry, understated, warm performance as an utter enigma. Bridge of Spies isn’t a great movie but it’s an awfully good and meticulously made one that sends the audience out feeling proud, reassured, and satisfied.