Bridge of Spies' has a license to lecture

Spielberg's espionage drama more history lesson than spy thriller

Thursday October 15, 2015 04:00 am EDT

Of all the spy films of 2015, the only one truly interested in realistic espionage is Steven Spielberg's new historical drama Bridge of Spies. Hollywood crushes on the glamorous, cartoonish secret agents of Spy, Kingsman, the upcoming Spectre, and even Furious 7, showing little time for the tedious research involved with real-world spycraft. Bridge of Spies doggedly emphasizes the nuts-and-bolts realities to shed light on both overlooked history and facets of present-day geopolitics.

The film opens in 1957 Brooklyn with a little cloak-and-dagger subterfuge, as we see soft-spoken Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) passing information while under U.S. surveillance. The closest thing the film has to a James Bond gadget is the razor blade and matchbook Abel uses to find a coded message in a phony nickel.

When the FBI arrests Abel, privileged New York insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) finds himself pressured to take the defense of the unacknowledged Soviet agent. The following trial offers a chance to prove the moral superiority of the U.S. justice system by even giving Abel a lawyer, but Donovan initially recoils at the idea of defending the spy, saying he'd become the second-most hated man in America, next to his client.

But Donovan's sense of fair play bristles at his awareness that the trial is stacked against Abel, and he grows to like his client's wry, stoic personality — Rylance's performance is like a master class in understatement. Not only does Donovan mount a serious defense, he takes it all the way to the Supreme Court, despite the increasing opposition of his wife (Amy Ryan) and his senior law partner (Alan Alda), along with public hostility and anonymous death threats. Hanks is perfectly cast in a role that would have been played by Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart in a prior generation.

For about an hour and a half, Bridge of Spies offers a fairly conventional tale of a humble hero standing up for what's right and the American way in the teeth of opposition. It's the kind of film that used to be catnip for Oscar voters, but lately seems too square even for the Academy. Donovan's case for the merciful treatment of Cold War prisoners resonates powerfully with similar debates from the contemporary War on Terror.

Donovan, using background, argues against executing Abel as insurance in the event the Soviets capture an American agent, and we need to make a swap. Wouldn't you know it, the Soviets get one when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) gets shot down over the U.S.S.R. in 1960. Bridge of Spies finds room for an Ethan Hunt-style action scene when Powers hangs out the cockpit of his nose-diving plane, although the pilot never comes into focus as a character.

For much of the film Bridge of Spies feels less like a Spielberg film than one under Clint Eastwood's direction, given its low-key acting, brownish color scheme and heavily symbolic American flags and clips on the television. (A classroom even watches the infamous Duck and Cover film for nuclear war survival.)

But when the locale shifts from the United States to Berlin, Bridge of Spies feels almost like an entirely different film. Donovan becomes a back-channel representative to negotiate the trade of Abel for Powers, shuttling between the two sides of the Berlin Wall, still under construction. Images of the ravaged German city patrolled by brutal officers prove strongly reminiscent of Schindler's List.

But the film's second half proves much more satirical, with colorful, funny supporting roles as Donovan tries to play the CIA, Soviets, and East Germans off each other. The script was co-written by filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen (with Matt Charman) and the Berlin section's blend of menace and humor feels much more Coenesque. Spielberg seems much more engaged in the film's latter section, as if Bridge of Spies has stepped out of the classroom and into the complex, confounding hall of mirrors we expect from a spy movie — even a realistic one. (3 out of 5 stars)

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