"The Bridge of Spies" is a consummate professional's tribute to a gifted amateur, a smooth entertainment with a strong but subtle political subtext that's both potent and unexpected.
The professional would be Steven Spielberg, a director with more than 40 years of experience whose superior filmmaking skills have been with us for so long it's tempting to take them for granted, which would be a mistake. Storytelling this proficient is never something we see every day.
Spielberg is so good he makes us forget that "Bridge of Spies" is basically two separate films, one a courtroom drama, the other a spy thriller, with unexpected dark humor thrown into the bargain courtesy of Joel and Ethan Coen, who did a credited rewrite of Matt Charman's script.
It was Charman who came across the Cold War true story of the amateur, a New York attorney named James B. Donovan, shrewdly played by Tom Hanks. A successful insurance lawyer, Donovan is taken out of his element twice over, first when he has to defend a Soviet spy in an espionage trial, then when he has to attempt an especially convoluted prisoner exchange.
One of the interesting aspects of "Bridge of Spies" is that Spielberg, apparently a longtime Cold War buff, was taken out of his element in terms of collaborators as well.
Yes, longtime associates like cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn are still with him, but strong and energizing help came from newcomers to the team like production designer Adam Stockhausen ("Grand Budapest Hotel," "12 Years a Slave"), costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone and composer Thomas Newman.
And though it isn't entirely new, it's always good to see Spielberg infusing contemporary political relevance into his films, especially ones like this, which are envisioned as large-scale entertainments.
Though Hanks is almost a given in an heroic everyman role like this (though his character has some unexpected twists), it was apparently Spielberg's idea to cast the magnificent stage actor Mark Rylance (Thomas Cromwell in the "Wolf Hall" miniseries) as his costar, who does beautiful work as Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel.
Abel is introduced in 1957 Brooklyn staring into a mirror, not because he is terminally self-involved but because, as an accomplished Sunday painter, he is working on a self-portrait. This is, we've already been informed, at the height of the Cold War, a time when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. lived in fear and spied on each other as much as they dared.
Soon enough the FBI bursts through Abel's door, and Donovan gets called in by his boss, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), who tells him he is being drafted to defend Abel, something Donovan is initially not happy about because "everyone will hate me and I will lose."
Watters responds with a patriotic speech, saying, "American justice is on trial" and "it can't look like our judicial system tosses people on the ash heap."
Though Donovan is a genuine patriot who truly believes in "the rule book," a.k.a. the Constitution, one of the politically interesting aspects of the film is that most other people in power are simply mouthing pieties and aren't interested in the slightest in constitutional guarantees. When Donovan says at one point, "we can care too much about security and too little about liberty," the post 9/11 relevance is hard to miss.
During the elaborate course of Abel's trial and appeals, Donovan forms a bond of sort with his reluctant client, who turns out to be a man whose diffidence and soft accent (Abel was born in the U.K. to Russian parents) masks a shrewd intelligence and a deadpan sense of humor. When Donovan asks him whether he's worried or scared, the invariable "would it help?" response is perfectly delivered.
Intercut with Donovan's work defending Abel is the drama of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a military pilot recruited by the CIA to fly the super-secret single seat U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union.
Powers is shot down, captured and subject to brutal Soviet interrogation, including being tortured with water in a way that inevitably brings to mind America's recent and controversial use of water-boarding.
It's at this point that "Bridge of Spies" changes course as Donovan, because of the relationship he has developed with Abel, is called in by the CIA and asked to go to Berlin as a private citizen and negotiate with the Soviets to trade Powers for Abel, a delicate job that gets even more complicated when the East Germans throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings.
It's in the Berlin part of the film that Hanks' performance as Donovan takes on greater idiosyncrasy and heft. For one thing, he has to battle an increasingly incapacitating cold that leaves him desperate to go home. (One senses the hand of the Coens, who love to torture their heroes, in this onerous illness.)
For another, this newly minted negotiator, with the CIA and two sovereign nations leaning on him, turns out to be very much his own person, determined to do what he thinks ought to be done. One of the themes of the film, as articulated by Abel, of all people, is the importance of being what the Russian calls "a standing man" and what we would characterize as "a stand-up guy."
Something that James Donovan very much turns out to be.