During the Cold War, an American lawyer is recruited to defend an arrested Soviet spy in court, and then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of the spy for the Soviet captured American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
‘Bridge of Spies’ is a powerful Cold War set drama that searched and finds the humanity underneath the politics and spy games. The film focuses on James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer assigned a criminal case to defend an accused Soviet spy, with the remit being to ensure he is seen to get a fair trial. Despite this remit, the powers that be behind the scenes want a quick trial and a quick and deadly resolution, and they don’t take kindly to Donovan’s decision to approach the case with the same thorough care and attention as he would any other, regardless of the presumed crimes of his client. Where ‘Bridge of Spies’ excels is in treading the line between the vigilante lynch mob style justice preferred by many and the firm and honourable belief of Donovan that every man deserves a fair trial.
You can’t really imagine anyone other than Tom Hanks playing James Donovan, a thoroughly decent, conscientious American, a role Hanks could play in his sleep. Hanks performance is strong and his folksy charm holds true whether Donovan is dealing with his own family or colleagues, or senior officials from the GDR or the Soviet Union. Donovan’s background in insurance makes him perfect for a case that requires the consideration of ‘what if’ scenarios, and it doesn’t need a genius to expect that one of them will come to pass later on in the film. Whilst Hanks is a known quantity, the man starring opposite him is more of an unknown despite being in his 50’s. Mark Rylance is primarily known for his theatrical work, but his captivating and subtly effective performance in TV period drama ‘Wolf Hall’ brought him to more people’s attention and I suspect ‘Bridge of Spies’ will raise his profile even more. He’s excellent in a quietly understated performance as Rudolf Abel, a man captured in the US and accused of being a Russian spy. Although he never allows his situation to faze him, Rylance lets some cracks appear in his facade and his back and forth with Hanks is always entertaining.
The early parts of the film get bogged down to an extent in heavy politicking but once the situation is established and the battle lines are drawn this becomes a compelling true life drama with real stakes at play. The Coen Brothers did some rewrites on the script from Matt Charman and this helps to add a bit of colour to the conversational sequences, both between Donovan and Abel, then in East Berlin as Donovan tries to negotiate an exchange. It is Spielberg and he does sometimes lay it on thick with the sentimentality, with the film sometimes coasting past some of the real hardships and challenges of the Cold War to focus on lighter humour and an approach that focuses on the happy ending at the expense of what went before, but this is a minor complaint in an overly strong film.
‘Bridge of Spies’ is an accomplished drama, expertly constructed by Spielberg and well performed by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. It’s Tier 2 Spielberg, but Tier 2 Spielberg is still better than most and this is an enjoyable piece of cinema.
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Scott Shepherd, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Sebastian Koch, Eve Hewson, Will Rogers, Dakin Matthews, Michael Gaston, Mikhail Gorevoy and Peter McRobbie