FILM REVIEW – BRIDGE OF SPIES. With Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch. Written by Matt Charman and Ethan Coen & Joel Coen. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language. 135 minutes.
Steven Spielberg has always been a better a craftsman than a storyteller. Left to his own devices, he tends to default to a child (or childlike character) trying to get home (“E.T.,” “Empire of the Sun,” “A.I.,” “The Terminal”). Yet hand him a solid script, as in “Minority Report” or “Lincoln,” and he can put his undeniable skill set to work on a memorable movie. Such is the case with BRIDGE OF SPIES–with a script by newcomer Matt Charman and veteran filmmakers Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. This is a fascinating story, well-told.
Spielberg is reunited with his frequent leading man, Tom Hanks. Hanks plays real-life attorney James B. Donovan who has been saddled with a thankless task. He is the court-appointed attorney for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is charged with being a Soviet spy. It’s the height of the Cold War and being an aggressive defender for someone everyone–including the judge–assumes is guilty does not make Donovan popular. He takes his job seriously, though, and even pursues an appeal after Abel’s conviction, when even his boss, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), says he’s done enough.
Meanwhile, we have our own spy operation going on. The CIA has launched a series of secret flights over the Soviet Union with special planes equipped with cameras to film the details of Russian military sites. Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is one of the pilots and when his plane gets shot down he doesn’t follow his instructions to kill himself in order to avoid capture. Instead, he is taken prisoner and put on public trial. This finally gets to the heart of the story as the CIA wants Powers back before he might tell the Russians anything, and the bargaining chip they have is an exchange for Abel.
There are further complications, from the building of the Berlin Wall to the capture of an American student to the United States not wanting to recognize the East German government as legitimate. It is being injected into this mess that leads Donovan on the path to enter the history books, because–with no official status on behalf of the United States–he is tasked with negotiating the spy swap of Abel and Powers.
The drama comes from the competing agendas that the Americans, the Soviets, the East Germans, and Donovan himself each have. A skilled negotiator, Donovan was used to dealing with insurance claims, not high stakes international intrigue that could conceivably touch off a war. Yet he doesn’t allow himself to be thrown by setbacks and continues to improvise, always focusing on his own goals which involves not two, but three prisoners.
Tom Hanks is, of course, marvelous. He’s gotten so good that he shines even in mediocre films, and when he gets a plum role that allows him to be an “everyman” who rises to the occasion, he’s outstanding. His fans will not be disappointed. Amy Adams (as Donovan’s wife) and Alda are in brief supporting roles, but there are two other actors who stand out here. First is Rylance who plays Abel as a sardonic figure who remains loyal to his supposed employers even if it’s not clear they’re loyal to him. Second is German actor Sebastian Koch as the East German lawyer Vogel, who is looking for the U.S. to respect the “German Democratic Republic” as something other than a Russian puppet and insists the negotiations hinge on that. It is a blustery performance with a tinge of sadness.
“Bridge of Spies” is based on actual events that remind us that the real world requires give and take to get what you want. Those who have been thirsting for “grown-up” movies should pay heed. Your prayers have been answered.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.