Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Hanks. (Re)written by the Coen Brothers. Start polishing the Oscars. Based on a true Cold War international incident, Bridge of Spies feels like an old-fashioned espionage flick, only the twist is that the central character is anything but a spy. He’s an insurance industry lawyer who’s roped into defending a Russian spy and then into negotiating a swap of said spy for an American pilot shot down while spying on the Soviets. It is a fascinating story, extremely well told, and the perfect film to take your parents to.
It starts in 1957. Tom Hanks plays lawyer James B. Donovan who we meet as he’s negotiating his way out of a big settlement. Meanwhile across town, the FBI trails and arrests a quiet and unremarkable artist named Rudolf Abel and charges him as a Soviet spy. The next thing you know Donovan is told that he has been chosen to defend this spy pro bono, and so he does his best, attempting to give him the kind of representation he’d give any American, which doesn’t play well in the Cold War climate of the time and Donovan and his family are demonized and threatened. And though he loses the case, his plea to keep Abel in jail rather than execute him turns out to be fortuitous when one of our spy planes and its pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) are shot down over the Soviet Union. So Donovan is recruited by the CIA to make a swap, outside government channels, for Powers and to do it in East Berlin, which has just built The Wall and where political affiliations are still very murky.
Hanks does his usual great job at playing the decent, intelligent guy standing up for what’s right. But the more interesting character is the Russian spy who never cracks and who is portrayed by Mark Rylance (Wolf Hall) as a really nice guy who is just doing his patriotic job, too. Speilberg delivers an involving thriller with plenty of tension but also some nice notes of humor that puts the Cold War (and many of our current conflicts) into the absurdist frame it deserves. I’d recommend it to most audiences, especially history buffs and lovers of good old-style spy flicks.
(I always wonder, when they say “based on a true story”, where the truth ends and the fiction for drama’s sake begins.)