Steven Spielberg’s new film “Bridge of Spies” is a compelling Cold War story deftly balancing itself between several different factors just like its no-nonsense lawyer hero who came into the Cold. Although it can be said that the movie is as unabashed as American apple pie in its historical/political messages, the movie delivers them through top-notch filmmaking skills and first-rate performances to draw and grab us during its 140 minutes, and you cannot help but admire how it simply but elegantly strikes the balance between warm, idealistic human drama and cold, ambiguous espionage tale.
Its quiet but increasingly tense opening sequence introduces to us Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet Spy who had operated in a Brooklyn neighborhood for several years but was eventually arrested in 1957. As he begins his another day as usual, we notice a group of people steadily following after him. They are federal agents, and they immediately arrest him when he returns to his residence after one of his routine spy works. He manages to destroy the latest code message (how it is delivered to him is one of fine authentic period details in the film), but there are already plenty of evidences to incriminate him, so he is soon going to be put on a trial for his espionage activities against the US government.
While many American people would love to see Abel promptly sentenced to electric chair, the US government sees that he must be treated with a fair trial in due process at least on the surface, mainly because of maintaining its positive ideological image against the Soviet Union. Although the movie never directly points it out to us, this indirectly reminds us of how the US government deliberately ignored the legal and human rights of its ‘detainees’ during the War on Terror just because they were not technically prisoners of war. Yes, Al-Qaeda and its terrorist associates were indeed a serious global threat to US and many other countries around the world, but the US government could have shown good examples of how it was ethically and morally better than those fanatic terrorists.
The unenviable job of defending Abel is handed to James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a prominent New York lawyer who has mainly dealt with insurance cases. When he is notified of that by his law firm boss Thomas Walters (Alan Alda), Donovan is well aware of how much the case will affect not only his career but also his private life, but he also knows that defending this infamous Soviet spy is a job which should be done by somebody anyway, so he accepts the case without much hesitation. His wife Mary (Amy Ryan) understandably worries about what will happen to their family because of her husband’s decision. Abel has already been the most hated man in US, and her husband will certainly be as unpopular in public as his client during the trial.
Donovan clearly sees from the beginning that there is no chance of winning, but he does as much as he can do for his calm, reticent client, who is ready to accept whatever will befall to him at the end of the trial. Mark Rylance, a veteran British actor mostly known for his Tony-winning stage performances and the recent TV drama series “Wolf Hall”, is superb in his understated performance as Abel gradually lets himself closer to his lawyer he comes to admire and respect. It goes without saying that Donovan and Abel are on the opposite sites in terms of ideology, but both of them come to find something common between themselves as men of integrity and principle, and that leads to a sort of friendship despite the gap remained between them.
As gaining Abel’s trust and respecting his position, Donovan finds himself going far further than expected even though that will not change anything for his client. Making a good point on how Abel can be a valuable asset to be exchanged with American spy captured by the Soviet, he successfully persuades the judge not to sentence Abel to death penalty. He even takes the case to the US Supreme Court for appeal, and we accordingly get a somber but grand scene of passionate speech on American ideals. This may sound corny you, but Spielberg succinctly handles this scene with restraint and sincerity, and Tom Hanks shows us again how he can effortlessly exude decency and nobility through his everyman persona like James Stewart or Gregory Peck (A small trivia: Peck was actually interested in making the very same real-life story into a movie with him and Alec Guinness in the starring roles in 1965, though its production was never greenlighted in the end).
And then the story takes a more interesting turn when Donovan receives another unenviable assignment after the U-2 incident in 1960. The Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane then captured its pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) alive, and, as Donovan correctly predicted, Abel now becomes definitely more useful for the US government as someone to be exchanged with Powers.
Because this swap needs a behind-the-scenes negotiation in advance, CIA requests Donovan to handle this process as its unofficial representative/negotiator, and that means Donovan must go to Berlin, which was becoming the emblem of the Cold War era during the 1960s. The Berlin Wall is being built as Donovan arrives in the city, and there is a brief but gut-chilling scene when Donovan and other people happen to witness the latest attempt to climb over that wall and its terrible aftermath. The bleak wintry atmosphere of the city still recovering from the wounds of the World War II makes a stark contrast to the soft brightness of the previous scenes, and that harsh, nervous political mood hovering around Berlin during that period feels palpable to us thanks to the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and the production designer Adam Stockhausen.
As crossing the heavily guarded border between West and East Berlin several times, Donovan enters the gray uncertain world of espionage, and Spielberg is no stranger to such a shady world like that. “Munich” (2005), one of his best works during last decade, was about a group of Mossad agents struggling in shadows as carrying out their secret operation, and some of its memorable moments were reminiscent of those gloomy espionage novels by John le Carré.
While it is inherently less ambivalent in comparison, “Bridge of Spies” also has a number of tense low-key moments as Donovan faces unexpected setbacks on his way. Things become more complicated as American graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) happens to be held in the custody of the East German government, so Donovan must be very careful and tactful for drawing the best outcome out of this very tricky situation between US, the Soviet Union, and East Germany.
The screenplay by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers fluidly moves between suspense and humor, and its dry comic moments come from how Donovan is constantly underestimated by his opponents including Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch), a real-life East German lawyer who was known well for his involvement in many swaps of spies between the West and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War era. Although he incidentally suffers from a cold and keeps saying to others that he really wants to go back to home as soon as possible (it becomes a major running gag in the film along with Abel’s priceless deadpan line you have to hear for yourself), Donovan patiently navigates the ongoing negotiation around obstacles through his unflappable common sense and pragmatic humanism, and everything eventually culminates to a long but gripping sequence unfolded around two historic sites of the Cold War era (the title of the movie comes from the nickname of one of them, by the way).
“Bridge of Spies” may be not as great as “Lincoln” (2012), but a well-made Spielberg film is at least better than 99% of what comes out of Hollywood every year, and this is indeed the work of a great filmmaker who can hold our attention even with a small effortless touch on the screen. Under his relaxed but dexterous direction, we appreciate its meticulous period details including those blinding flashlight bulbs quickly used and discarded by photographers or that silly education film on nuclear war (can you believe that people during that time actually thought they could survive nuclear war through “Duck and cover”?), and the score by Thomas Newman, who replaced Spielberg’s usual collaborator John Williams due to William’s brief health problem, is appropriately restrained while hitting bold dramatic notes whenever it is required.
Compared to other recent spy action movies including “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” (2015) and “Spectre” (2015), “Bridge of Spies” is a slow and quiet stuff, but it is a smart, thoughtful film with lasting impressions. Its last two scenes could look clichéd and obligatory, but it earns them through its good storytelling, and we leave with neat satisfaction, as reflecting on that timeless value of common sense and pragmatic humanism.