With terrific craftsmanship, pure storytelling gusto and that Midas-touch ability to find grounds for optimism everywhere, Steven Spielberg has dramatised a true-life cold war spy-swap drama, starring Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance. Those brought up on John Le Carré might perhaps expect from this moral equivalence, shabby compromise and exhausted futility. But Spielberg, with his gift for un-cynicism, uncovers decency and moral courage amidst all the Realpolitik. He works from an excellent screenplay by up-and-coming British dramatist Matt Charman, a script punched up in recognisable places by Joel and Ethan Coen.
In 1962, America prepared to recover Gary Powers, the U2 spy-plane pilot captured by the Soviets. The plan was hand over their own incarcerated Russian spy Rudolf Abel, in a classic cold war prisoner exchange at dawn on the Glienecke bridge spanning East and West Berlin – the so-called “Bridge of Spies” – with snipers waiting on both sides ready to take their man out in case of last-second betrayal.
It’s the everyman quality of Hanks: He has the gift of portraying a character who strikes you as an ordinary man — which the character is — but who, by the end of the film, you see as an extraordinary person.
As such, Bridge of Spies is a tried and true, classically structured slow burn. So much that the immaculate polish of Spielberg’s filmmaking sometimes get lost in the predictable flow of its events. Cold War dramas, by nature, are procedural and rather elemental. Men from different sides meet under the cry of night in rooms, both lock eyes and try not to blink.
Hanks gives a very satisfying, watchable and assured performance, with just the right amount of hokum, homely and wily in judiciously balanced proportions. Jimmy Stewart gave us Mr Smith Goes to Washington; Hanks gives us Mr Donovan Goes to Cold War Berlin. Where his Donovan is bluffly ingenuous and straightforward, Rylance’s Russian spy Abel is a quietly voiced enigma, greeting the arresting officers in his chaotic Brooklyn apartment dressed in his underwear, asking meekly if he can put in his false teeth.
A key reason Spielberg and Hanks collaborated for the fourth time in their careers is to tell a story that shows how our world could be made better if world leaders could reason with one another and that all that is needed sometimes is the example of one honest man. A true leader.
In a role that feels modeled not only on Donovan himself but also on a combination of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” meets Atticus Finch, Hanks plays Donovan in a subtle but firm manner as a true advocate. He believes in the Constitution as not only the rule of law, but also as a tool that’s not as flexible as many leaders would have us believe today.
The movie also gives us intriguing visual rhymes, duplications perhaps inspired by the Berlin wall. Spielberg withholds the facts about why Powers failed to commit suicide on capture with a poison-pin in a phoney coin – but instead shows us Abel removing secret information from a phoney coin of his own: somehow a dismal, petty skill. Donovan witnesses a horrible event from the window of his Berlin train, and finally sees something weirdly similar from his commuter train into Manhattan. And the subtle, underplayed, expertly directed “chase” sequence on the subway train at the beginning is terrifically good. Bridge of Spies has a brassy and justified confidence in its own narrative flair.
Bridge of Spies is in theaters today.