“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 a story about a man of courage and principals. But the film does feel 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 circa 1957, Donovan employs all of his legal know-how to defend an alleged Russian spy. He fights a good fight all the way to the Supreme Court.
Later, at the official but clandestine request of the U.S. government, Donovan seeks the release of the Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. pilot who was shot down and captured by the Russians during a spying mission.
Hanks applies passion to his performance judiciously. Despite several courtroom chances for showboating, he doesn’t. Hanks makes his points with well-reasoned eloquence.
That approach produces a measured, cumulative kind of inspiration in an audience, based on wisdom rather than emotion. Hanks, already the recipient of two Oscars and five Oscar nominations, seems likely to earn a sixth nomination for “Bridge of Spies.” He plays a broad range of expertly gauged expression, from diplomatic persuasion to insistent urgency. Donovan is the latest addition to Hanks’ large catalog of great American characters.
While “Bridge of Spies” is mostly a Hanks and Spielberg show, Matt Charman’s and Ethan and Joel Coen’s script populates the film with many supporting characters. Unlike Donovan, most of them pursue their own interests.
Captured pilot Powers is a minor player. As Powers, Austin Stowell shows up sparingly. He’s seen in a flew pre-flight scenes and in Russian custody. Powers is a prop, the reason for Donovan’s secret, complex negotiations in East Berlin to free him.
The movie’s real second principal character is Rudolf Abel. The Russian spy’s capture in Brooklyn and trials that follow form the movie’s excellent first act.
British stage and screen actor Mark Rylance co-stars as Abel, a spy whose deadpan countenance serves as comic relief.
The stoicism Rylance’s and Hank’s and characters show joins in a duet of perseverance against overwhelming odds. Their relationship includes an unspoken but undeniable warmth.
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 he bothers to provide Abel with anything more than a rubber-stamp defense.
“So,” the lawyer’s objecting wife asks, “you’re doing this? Defending a Russian spy?”
“Everyone deserves a defense,” Donovan says.
Later, Donovan applies that same determined sense of justice to his negotiations for Powers’ release. In East Berlin, Hanks as Donovan deftly plays a treacherous game with Russians, East Germans and even Americans. No one but Donovan 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 a willingness not to pander earn admiration for this cinematic fanfare for a common man who’s uncommonly good.