Those old “duck and cover” school films will get you every time: the vehement, mushrooming cloud of the exploding bomb; the trees bending wildly and then snapping away; the wood-framed structures snuffed in an instant. It’s the stuff of 1950s schoolchildren’s nightmares. Get under your desk, close your eyes and hope for the best.
Such is the world of Steven Spielberg’s sincere and gently thrilling “Bridge of Spies,” based on a true story and set in the darkest days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Every time has its tenor, and to live in the U.S. at that time was to be part of a simmering collective hysteria in which the bright flash of “The Bomb” was only an air-raid siren away.
Against this backdrop, Tom Hanks plays an unlikely hero: lawyer James Donovan, who agrees to represent an alleged Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (played by a superb Mark Rylance), arrested by the FBI for transmitting atomic secrets and on trial for his life.
Even during the most benevolent of times in this country, it can be hard to rally Americans to the idea that everyone – no matter how guilty they seem – deserves a competent defense. To be representing an enemy agent at the height of the Cold War is to elevate that friction to another level, as Donovan and his wife (Amy Ryan) discover when their Brooklyn home is sprayed with bullets.
Soon Donovan finds himself enmeshed in world events beyond the courtroom drama involving his client. Spielberg begins weaving in the story of Francis Gary Powers (a somewhat bland Austin Stowell), the U-2 spy pilot shot down by the Soviets and held for interrogation. Would Donovan be willing as a private citizen – essentially operating without the protection of the U.S. government – to negotiate a prisoner exchange: Rudolf Abel for Powers?
Americans have long loved their Everymen – and continue that tradition through today. (The top three contenders in the polls right now in the Republican presidential candidate field, after all, are non-politician politicians, you could say.)
So it isn’t exactly going out on a limb for Spielberg and Hanks to celebrate a non-diplomat diplomat. Donovan’s amateur approach once he’s started his mission allows both for moments of bureaucratic levity and almost cheesy principled stands that seem out of place in a cutthroat spy world.
The remarkable thing, however, is that the earnest Spielberg, and especially Hanks, are able to elevate a storyline in which the audience is asked to “feel” for a Soviet spy. (Rylance’s wonderful performance, subdued and mournful and yet with a slight bounce to his step, helps in this regard.) What’s more, loftier ideals such as constitutional rights and humaneness toward honorable adversaries get across without seeming smarmy.
Hanks works his average-guy magic, and the fact that his character spends a good chunk of the movie with a nasty head cold only adds to the charm.
Granted, there’s a certain Spielberg big-Hollywood gloss to the proceedings. (The most disturbing image is likely Hanks’ runny nose.) Donovan faces hardship in terms of being ostracized, but it’s nothing that a stiff upper lip doesn’t cure. A storyline involving an American graduate student captured by the East Germans, which suddenly becomes a big part of Donovan’s amateur negotiations, is awkwardly stuffed into the narrative. And at times the tone of the script (by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen) wavers, with the levity at times nearly pushing the film into caper territory.
But there’s also simmering tension and a tremendous Spielberg payoff, with beautiful visuals – lots of diffused light glowing through frosted windows and impressively recreated sections of Cold War Berlin – adding to the heft of the project.
Watching the film, you marvel a little at the crackling atmosphere the U.S. found itself in at the time – and feel relief that “duck and cover” is part of the nostalgic past. But then you think of today’s headlines and wonder. Our spies and their spies are still hard at work. Who knows what happens next?
Bridge of Spies
- Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language
- Stars: Tom Hanks, Mark Ryberg, Amy Ryan
- Directed by Steven Spielberg
- Running time: 142 minutes
- Opens Friday, Oct. 16
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