“Bridge of Spies” is Steven Spielberg’s often cerebral, sometimes heated Cold War-era drama. Doing the right thing is unpopular in this story. Nevertheless, Tom Hanks’ Brooklyn lawyer stands up for right every time.
Set in an international arena but staged on a more intimate scale than Spielberg’s 2012 historical epic “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies” is about a man of courage and principles. It feels heavy handed at times. Bold character lines are good for drama, but can Hanks’ character really be the only good guy in sight?
That question aside, Hanks excels in his performance as James Donovan. An insurance lawyer in Brooklyn, New York, circa 1957, Donovan uses all of his legal know-how to defend an alleged Russian spy. He fights for his client all the way to the Supreme Court.
Later, at the official but clandestine request of the U.S. government, Donovan negotiates for the release of Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. pilot shot down and captured by the Russians during a spying mission.
Despite several courtroom scenes and other showboating opportunities, Hanks judiciously applies passion to his portrayal of Donovan. The attorney makes points with well-reasoned eloquence. That approach produces a cumulative kind of inspiration in an audience, grounded in wisdom, not emotion.
Hanks, already the recipient of two Oscars and five Oscar nominations, seems likely to earn a sixth nomination for “Bridge of Spies.” His wide range of expression moves from diplomatic persuasion to insistent urgency.
“Bridge of Spies” is mostly a Hanks and Spielberg show, but Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen’s script contains many supporting characters. Unlike Donovan, they all pursue their own interests.
Captured pilot Powers is a minor player in “Bridge of Spies.” Playing Powers, Austin Stowell appears sparingly. The character is a prop, an excuse for Donovan’s secret, complex negotiations in East Berlin to free him.
Rudolf Abel is the movie’s real second principal character. The Russian spy’s capture in Brooklyn and trials that follow, all foregone conclusions of guilty, form the movie’s excellent first act. British stage and screen actor Mark Rylance co-stars as Abel, the spy whose deadpan countenance serves as comic relief. More seriously, the stoicism Hanks’ and Rylance’s characters show joins in a duet of perseverance against overwhelming odds.
In the Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s and early ’60s, Donovan’s family, his law colleagues, public officials and the American people cannot understand why the American attorney provides Abel with anything more than a rubber-stamp defense.
Later, Donovan applies that same determined sense of justice to his efforts to free Powers. In East Berlin, Hanks’ Donovan deftly plays a treacherous game with Russians, East Germans and Americans. Almost no one there cares about fair play.
“Bridge of Spies” isn’t a rousing tale that will prompt cheers. It works on too thoughtful a plane for that. Intelligence and not pandering to audiences earn admiration for this cinematic fanfare for a common man who’s uncommonly good.