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Children tearfully watch filmstrips about how their best chance to survive a nuclear attack is to “duck and cover.” James Donovan (Tom Hanks) looks on in horror as Berliners are gunned down trying to clamber over the newly constructed wall. At one point, shots are fired into his New York home.
The Brooklyn insurance lawyer is in way over his head, tasked with “unofficially” negotiating the exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) for downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) during the height of the Cold War, in a country that’s destabilizing by the minute, with little help from the U.S. government. Yet the biggest threat he ever really faces in “Bridge of Spies” is from the common cold. He’s forever coughing and sniffling after East German street thugs steal his winter coat, and he just wants to go home, see his family and crawl into bed.
Rather than focusing on the thrilling espionage of the era, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen, working from an original draft by London playwright Matt Charman, uncover the humanity behind a critical moment in history in this dense, well-crafted drama.
In 1957, Brooklyn artist Abel is arrested and charged with espionage. Given the public outrage when the Cold War lands squarely in their backyard, no lawyer will go near him. So the New York Bar Association reaches out to Donovan. Sure, he just negotiates insurance claims and hasn’t practiced criminal law in years, but Donovan was a prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials. And, every party realizes, it’s in the nation’s best interests that Abel have a proper defense despite the overwhelming evidence that all but ensures a conviction. “Great,” Donovan sighs. “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose.”
Once he agrees to represent Abel, though, Donovan won’t stop fighting for his client, even in the presence of a biased judge (Dakin Matthews) who shoots down the attorney’s every motion. “He’ll receive a capable defense,” the judge informs Donovan. “And, God willing, he’ll be convicted.”
When he is, and Donovan begins readying an appeal, no one, including his wife (Amy Ryan) and boss (Alan Alda), can believe it. He was supposed to represent Abel, not free him. But Donovan sees the grandfatherly Russian for what he is: a regular guy who’s just doing his job. He begs the judge to spare Abel’s life, because the Soviets surely will capture an American, and we’ll want him treated well.
Then Powers, who’s been told above all else to avoid capture, screws up royally, and the race is on to get him home.
Complicating matters is American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who’s been detained in East Berlin. The CIA wants Powers returned before he can spill all the secrets of the U-2 program, and the agency has zero interest in Pryor. But Donovan won’t budge. He’s determined to bring home both men or neither.
While Donovan’s story isn’t well known, “Bridge of Spies” doesn’t offer much intrigue for anyone old enough to remember the Powers incident, which includes most of the movie’s target demographic. Perhaps fittingly, Powers remains a cipher, and Pryor is more of a plot point than a person. Instead, much of the movie’s heft relies on the unexpected friendship between Donovan and Abel, the cuddliest spy ever.
To the surprise of literally no one, Hanks is dependably solid. He pours on the necessary decency and folksiness Donovan requires, even though he only occasionally gets to dial his magnetic Hanksiness up to 11.
Rylance, though, is simply marvelous as Abel. The British stage legend, most recently seen on PBS as Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall,” steals every scene he’s in with his understated, resigned performance. “I’m not afraid to die, Mr. Donovan,” he offers, meekly and politely. “But it wouldn’t be my first choice.”
With all sorts of intermediaries, play acting and people who rarely are who they seem or claim, there’s a lot going on in “Bridge of Spies” that demands your attention. But while the stakes at the time were extraordinarily high, that tension rarely translates onscreen. The movie basically boils down to this: Donovan’s a nice guy, he wants to free two Americans, and you hope he gets what he wants.
It’s a charmingly old-fashioned tale that feels ever so slightly like a missed opportunity. There’s simply not enough weight or suspense to fully immerse yourself in.
If nothing else, though, “Bridge of Spies” is at least every bit as comfortable as that bed Donovan longs to see again.
Movie: “Bridge of Spies”
Running time: 132 minutes
Rating: PG-13; some violence and brief strong language
Movie review: Bridge of Spies’ a cold war movie with a warm heart
EMBARGOED FOR FRIDAY RELEASE