A solid, low-key Cold War drama thriller from Steven Spielberg. “Solid” might not sound like much of a compliment, but sometimes it’s just satisfying to watch a well-made film that might not be edgy or exceptional and just about avoids the worthy and dull basket, but which also brims with confidence and expertise in cinematic craft. It achieves a difficult balance of dramatising a true story where, on one hand, too much of real life would probably make it boring and on the other, it still has to retain some realism in order to not lapse completely into fake movie-land.
Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer tasked with the defense of Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a captured Soviet spy. It’s 1957, Cold War paranoia is in full swing, and Donovan’s young son is so worried about the nuclear weapons he fills their bathtub with drinking water after watching a terrifying documentary at school. Defending Abel is a thankless job, but Donovan refuses to act like a token lawyer who’s only in court for the show, and mounts a better defense than anyone expected or wanted from him, going as far as the Supreme Court. Other than appeals to the principles of justice and humanism, Donovan’s arguments against the death sentence have a pragmatic side: if an American spy was in turn captured by the Soviets, how would we want them to be treated? Wouldn’t Abel make for a valuable political currency if the US government needed to bargain?
The above could be a summary for a whole separate film, but in Bridge of Spies it’s merely a prelude to the bigger story, the dramatic exchange of prisoners after the infamous U-2 spy plane incident and the capture of its pilot Gary Powers by the Russians. Donovan gets sent to Germany to negotiate the Abel-Powers swap, but once again he has trouble sticking to the bare minimum demanded from him, and also wants the Soviets to throw in an American student named Frederic Pryor, who got imprisoned in East Berlin for the rotten luck of being in a wrong place at a wrong time. Despite having zero experience in espionage, Donovan has to navigate the minefield of the divided Berlin and deal with the Iron Curtain personalities who all want the best possible outcome for their countries. All while battling a vicious cold and a gang of young East Berliners who want to steal his expensive coat.
As expected, Tom Hanks gives a highly watchable and sincere performance as morally upstanding Donovan, but the real MVP for me was Mark Rylance’s subtle turn as Abel. It’s amazing that an ordinary, quiet, reserved character like this can steal a movie with his enigma and stillness. There’s a sense of mutual liking and respect between Donovan and Abel; though on opposite sides they’re both men who will not take an easy way out. Abel’s presence is missed once Donovan goes over to Europe, but the film compensates the loss well enough with the re-creation of tense and ravaged Cold War Berlin.
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Joel and Ethan Coen were involved in the screenplay; while overall fairly straightforward, Bridge of Spies has a few quirky moments sprinkled throughout that wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen brothers film. Another reason to like the movie for me is that they actually bothered to cast native Russian speakers for the minor parts, and my ears weren’t offended by the supposedly Russian characters mangling the language beyond recognition.