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‘Bridge of Spies’ is an engrossing account of a real-life Cold War case

🕐 4 min read

An air of wholesome, stolid assurance pervades “Bridge of Spies,” a handsome, sober-minded Cold War thriller about a little-known chapter of American history.

And why not? This absorbing tale of tradecraft, political ideals and unimpeachable moral character has been brought to the screen by no less a craftsman than Steven Spielberg, here directing from a script written by Joel and Ethan Coen, with Matt Charman. In case that pedigree isn’t convincing enough, Tom Hanks stars as the film’s inspiring lead character, a quietly heroic New York lawyer who in another era would have been portrayed by James Stewart or Gary Cooper.

Hanks is his generation’s answer to those paragons of rectitude, and in “Bridge of Spies” he reminds us why. As James Donovan, who in 1957 defended – unsuccessfully – accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel at the behest of the U.S. government, Hanks exudes modesty, high principles and simple fairness.

When the plot thickens and he becomes involved in a swap of prisoners to take place in East Germany – Abel for U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose U-2 was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 – he shifts his trademark humility into overdrive, insisting to his Communist intermediaries that he has a cold and just wants “to go home and get into bed.” One of the many subtexts of the film’s low-key brinkmanship is how the Cold War kept from getting hot; Hanks has always been disarming, but in this case he’s literally as well as figuratively so.

Hanks’s aw-shucks charm could easily curdle into smugness here, but Spielberg keeps the self-righteousness to a minimum. When he allows Donovan to speechify, it’s on behalf of constitutional due process and American fair play. These are clearly meant to resonate in the era of Guantanamo and mass surveillance – much as the fractiousness and executive strong-arming in Spielberg’s “Lincoln” chimed with realpolitik in 21st-century Washington.

Mostly, though, the director simply follows the action, first as Donovan meets his client, Abel, a taciturn sleeper agent, and then as both men’s fates intertwine with the U-2 episode, an obscure American graduate student living in West Berlin and the emergent geopolitical identity of a brand-new East Germany.

Filmed by longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, “Bridge of Spies” looks as if it’s been carved from granite and mist. Blues, grays and chilly puffs of white light are to Spielberg what syrupy ambers are to Woody Allen.

Spielberg – himself a child of the duck-and-cover 1950s – adroitly establishes the heaviness and barely contained paranoia of the time, which he depicts with rich, unnostalgic atmosphere. He’s also done a good job of casting actors blessed with timeless features, especially Amy Ryan, who plays Donovan’s wife with understated elegance and a few particularly well-timed sidelong glances.

It should come as no surprise that Spielberg moves viewers through Donovan’s story with good taste and practiced confidence. With the help of some clever cuts and dissolves from editor Michael Kahn, he imparts an enormous amount of information in a series of swift, graceful scenes that firmly establish the protagonist’s hard-nosed negotiating skills as well as his reflexive belief that America’s democratic values are its best weapon.

The narrative of “Bridge of Spies” flags only when Donovan arrives in East Germany, where he embarks on a series of talky, often bizarre encounters with KGB apparatchiks and shadowy satellite figures, the most amusing of which involves members of Abel’s fake “family,” who implore the American attorney to free their husband and father. (As he often does, Spielberg also can’t seem to decide on an ending for “Bridge of Spies,” so he supplies three.)

Part of the reason why the Germany sequences sag is that they don’t feature Abel, who is played by British actor Mark Rylance in what, with luck, will be a career-making performance. Many viewers may not have heard of Rylance, who recently played Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” on PBS. But his work in “Bridge of Spies” deserves to be widely recognized as an example of screen acting at its most subtle, poignant and exquisitely calibrated.

In the film’s near-wordless opening section, during which Abel goes about his daily business as an unassuming painter, Rylance communicates volumes about his character’s discipline and isolation, simply by way of facial expression and body language. Later, as Abel and Donovan develop an alliance of mutual understanding and respect, he relaxes just enough to indulge a streak of deadpan, unmistakably Slavic humor.

Rylance turns in a sensitive, deeply etched portrayal of a studiously nondescript criminal. Yet “Bridge of Spies” expands from being a smart, engrossing procedural to a carefully observed character study of Donovan, a particularly intriguing, heretofore overlooked American figure. Thanks to his own reflexive values, Spielberg can’t help but make the kind of inspiring, classically constructed drama that we keep being told Hollywood doesn’t produce anymore.

Thank goodness he still does.

Three stars. Rated PG-13. Contains some violence and brief strong language. 142 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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