Anyone else notice how frequently the Cold War has factored into films this year? From the ridiculous (Guy Ritchie's unnecessary reimagining of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) to the underrated (Pawn Sacrifice) to the sublime new work from Steven Spielberg, we're seeing the results of directors' sudden compulsion to peek behind the Iron Curtain. Bridge of Spies is not merely the finest of these, but the cinematic equivalent of a double agent.
First and foremost, the director's 29th film is masterfully crafted entertainment. Spielberg's in a position to have his pick of the industry's best and brightest, in front of and behind the camera, and I doubt he's ever surrounded himself with more high-grade help. Tom Hanks turns in an awards-caliber performance as real-life Manhattan insurance attorney James Donovan, whose stranger-than-fiction story was discovered and turned into a screenplay by Matt Charman. Spielberg in turn discovered that screenplay and handed it to cowriters Joel and Ethan Coen.
In 1957, Donovan finds himself in the unenviable position of being asked by the U.S. government to defend a Russian spy. He's told it's vital the other side see that the American court system affords its agent due process. "Everyone will hate me, but at least I'll lose," Donovan jokes initially.
His attitude gradually changes after he meets his client, Rudolf Abel, a quietly likable fellow with a fondness for painting. One of the filmmaker's master strokes was casting British actor Mark Rylance in the role. Regarded as one of the greatest stage actors alive, he's generally stayed under Hollywood's radar, and he's a revelation.
The powers that be have a kangaroo court in mind for Abel. Donovan, however, does the last thing anyone expects: his job. The public, which demanded the death sentence, is not pleased when the lawyer succeeds in saving Abel's life.
But wait, there's more. The sparing of Abel pays unexpected dividends after CIA-recruited pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in Soviet air space — in a spectacular sequence. Thanks to Donovan, the U.S. has a living, breathing bargaining chip. The authorities express their gratitude by sending the lawyer to Berlin to risk his life engineering the swap.
Neither the U.S. nor the Soviets want to be seen as engaging in the exchange, so the American finds himself on the other side of a bureaucratic looking glass. He negotiates with a series of Russian and German operatives, most of whom aren't what they seem. Abel's "distraught family," for example, is revealed to be a group of actors. Donovan's job is further complicated when an American student is caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall as it's being raised.
The CIA is interested only in the return of its pilot. Donovan goes rogue in Schindlerian fashion and insists on adding the civilian to his list. The move pleases the Russian and German governments as little as his own, and threatens to render the highly covert mission impossible.
Spielberg's superb thriller operates on multiple levels, like that aforementioned double agent. It's a crackling tale of intrigue, but it's also the story of a decent, principled man determined to give a detainee his day in court and protect him from those who'd strong-arm his secrets. A man, in short, who believes the Constitution isn't a piece of paper to be followed solely when it's convenient to do so.
Coded into this trip back to the Cold War is a stinging indictment of U.S. policy during our wars in the Middle East. Just exactly where, the film urges viewers to ask, are the James Donovans of today?