Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” starring Tom Hanks, is a solid, conventionally made drama about the cold-war era, which, compared to now, seems almost halcyon. That’s a gross underestimation of how bad things were back then, of course, but the film, intentionally or not, makes one almost moony for a time when the enemy, even cloaked in subterfuge, was in plain sight.
Tom Hanks, in his best man-of-the-people mode, plays real-life James B. Donovan, a top insurance agent who, in 1957, is called upon by his high-powered firm to represent a British-born Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), caught in New York. Although he was a lawyer at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials, Donovan, for reasons the movie never delves into, had switched his specialty to insurance years ago, and is initially reluctant to take on the case. He sees it as a lose-lose proposition.
From his agency’s point of view, all Donovan has to do is provide reputable counsel, as a show of American uprightness, before the inevitable boom is lowered. But Donovan, to the consternation of his legal partners and practically everyone around him, including his cozy family, pursues a far more aggressive legal strategy that repeatedly invokes the US Constitution.
Spielberg and his writers, Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen, make it all too clear that Donovan is not some commie sympathizer. (Donovan offers a quick aside to his family about the rightness of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg conviction.) What he stands for is a larger principle: He wants to show the Soviets that in America, the right to a fair and honest trial prevails. “Let’s show them who we are” is his refrain.
There is no question that Abel is guilty, which makes Donovan’s strenuous defense of his rights confounding to stateside cold warriors. He becomes something of a pariah, but, in his unwavering commitment to principle, Donovan is as steadfast as Gary Cooper’s sheriff in “High Noon.” He’s very cagey, though. He may be a staunch idealist, but he knows how the world works and is always a few steps ahead of his adversaries and naysayers. Like the good insurance man that he is, he manages to save Abel’s life by arguing that his client is worth more incarcerated – where he could potentially be swapped for a captured American spy someday – than if he were executed.
And sure enough, in 1962, the opportunity arises for a swap involving U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down and captured by the Soviets two years earlier. Donovan is called upon to arrange the swap in the about-to-be-divided Berlin, where East Germans are frantically attempting to cross the border before the wall is built. One of those who doesn’t make it, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student attempting to get his East German girlfriend across the divide, is captured. Donovan, naturally, makes it a condition that both Powers and Pryor be part of the exchange for Abel, once again ruffling an entire aviary of feathers.
The best and most heartfelt aspect of the movie is the friendship that develops between Donovan and Abel, an amateur painter who is almost preternaturally soft-spoken and even-tempered. Whenever a perplexed Donovan wonders aloud why Abel isn’t more upset over his prospects, he answers resignedly, “Would it help?” Both Hanks and Rylance, a marvelous British stage actor, are masters at underplaying, which is just the right tone for their communions here. The decency of their interactions underscores the film’s central theme: Enemies are people, too, and some of them, like Abel, were just doing their job, in the same way that American spies were doing theirs.
Spielberg has often been drawn to steadfast souls like Donovan – most conspicuously, Abraham Lincoln and Oskar Schindler. Schindler saved thousands; Donovan only had to save two (or three, if you count Abel). “Bridge of Spies” is solid and uplifting, but it doesn’t extend Spielberg’s range. Perhaps one day he will make a movie about a historical character whose complexities are not quite so untainted. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.)