Bridge of Spies

In 1957 the FBI caught a Soviet spy in Brooklyn by the name of Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance. This was the height of the cold war and communist paranoia was rampant, so there was a great deal of publicity about the capture. Consequently, when it came time to find a lawyer to represent the spy during his trial, very few people stepped up. Such a lawyer would be almost as unpopular as Abel himself.
James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, is volunteered for the task even though he is an insurance lawyer—hands up if you knew there were such things as insurance lawyers. He turns out to be perfect for the job. He has a strong belief that everyone, no matter what their crime, has a right to an energetic defense. And he is not intimidated by threats to himself or his family.
He’s also a pretty good lawyer, but he loses the case when the judge denies his motion to suppress evidence that was retrieved without a proper warrant. With a last minute personal appeal, he does convince the judge not to give Abel the death penalty, reasoning that someday the Soviets may catch one of our spies and we’ll need to exchange Abel.
This proves fortuitous in 1960 when U2 pilot Gary Powers is shot down over the Soviet Union and captured by the Russians. Now Donovan must travel to Berlin to negotiate with both the Soviets and the East Germans to exchange the prisoners.
Considered as a Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies is something of an odd film. There are no obvious special effects, although I assume many of the background shots of 50’s and 60’s buildings were added digitally. There are also no emotional fireworks, none of the usual manipulation that many, although not me, find annoying about Spielberg’s films. This is perhaps because the Coen brothers co-wrote the script with Matt Charman. Those guys are definitely not into heartstring tugging.
Whatever the reason for the restraint, Spielberg should remember it and use it again. This is a terrific script. It expertly advances the plot through dialog, all the while ratcheting up the tension until it is almost unbearable by the end. And despite the lack of big emotional moments, it still winds up being a paean to human decency.
Tom Hanks’ performance ties the film together. Of course in the end it is a portrayal of a decent man fighting for what’s right and such roles are well within Hanks’ comfort zone. But if Tom Hanks doesn’t want to stretch himself at this point in his career, I’m not going to deduct any points for it. He’s really good at playing decent men fighting to do what’s right.
The real revelation is Mark Rylance. His Rudolf Abel is a stoic man, almost cold, but you can see the emotions bubbling just below the surface on his deceptively expressive face. And what’s more, you end up respecting and liking him. I’d never really known anything about him so I looked up his IMDB page. He’s done a couple of films and a handful of British TV shows but most of his career has been spent on stage in the West End. I hope to see more of him.
Bridge of Spies moves to the upper echelon of Spielberg’s “serious” films, right there with Lincoln and Schindler’s List. The amazing thing about him is that he is still learning and evolving as a director even at the age of sixty eight. In many ways this is the most exciting era of his career.

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