There is something comforting about Tom Hanks starring in a Steven Spielberg film. Hanks is like the everyman similar to Jimmy Stewart. What makes Hanks’ performance so compelling is that he is an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things. In one scene, he insists “the rule book is called the Constitution, and we agree to the rules, and it’s what makes us Americans.” That’s a powerful statement that defines a Spielberg film like ‘Lincoln’ and what makes us Americans. This is not an action spy thriller like a James Bond film. Spielberg chooses to focus on the dealmaking and deception that goes on behind closed doors. Co-written by the Coen Brothers, the screenplay is a conventional story with bits of humor thrown in for good measure. ‘Bridge of Spies’ won’t go down as one of Spielberg’s highest achievements but it is worth your viewing.
One of the highlights of the film is Spielberg’s meticulous detail to the period. Set in 1957 at the height of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, you feel like you’re taken back to that uncertain era. The tensions of the Cold War are perfectly illustrated by showing American school children pledging allegiance to the flag and then watching a black-and-white Duck and Cover PSA. The opening sequence visually introduces us to a man Rudolf Abels (Mark Rylance) looking into a mirror as he paints a self-portrait. It’s a clever scene as it shows the contrast between reality and perception. He gets a phone call and sits on a park bench where he picks up a nickel. He returns to his apartment where he pries open the hollowed coin finding some sort of encrypted document. Suddenly, the FBI agents break down the door and he is arrested for espionage.
Jim Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer is asked to serve as Abel’s defense attorney by his boss Alan Alda. “It’s important to our country,” it is explained to Donovan “that this man is seen getting a fair shake. American justice will be on trial.” At first reluctant, he takes on this case and instead of just appearing to go through the motions, makes certain his client gets due process. He even persuades the judge to consider not executing Ables since he could be a valuable bargaining chip if an American is ever captured by the Soviets as a spy. Five years later, American Air Force pilot Frances Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the Russians. It’s a spectacular scene as Powers is 70,000 feet above Russia performing aerial reconnaissance when his U-2 aircraft is struck by a surface-to-air missile. Donovan is once again summoned by government officials to mediate the exchange between Abels and Powers. This is where the film gets suspenseful as Donovan goes above and beyond his duty to also help an American graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) become a part of the deal.
This is what makes a Spielberg film like ‘Bridge of Spies’ so noble. It’s essentially about how the United States is based on not just doing the right thing but going beyond what is necessary to be an example for the rest of the world. Hanks’ character Donovan displays a sense of heroism that makes him stand out as a guy that believes in due process and fairness. Spielberg even gives him the sniffles to show how he is not invincible but who just wants to complete his duty and get home to his family back in Brooklyn. It’s one of Hanks’ best performances since ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ Equally compelling is the performance from suspected Soviet agent Rudolf Abel played by Mark Rylance. He gives the character a deadpan sense of humor that is endearing. They form a bond of respect as Abel becomes a bargaining chip for Powers. Donovan never condones Abel’s actions but understands that both countries are playing the spy game against one another.
Spielberg delivers a nostalgic view of world affairs when it was easier to identify the enemy. Through the cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, as Donovan moves to the Eastern sector of Berlin, everything is washed out in blue and gray colors. The Berlin Wall is one of the defining symbols of the Cold War. Earlier in another scene as each block of the wall is set into place, it acts like an enclosed tomb separating families and tearing apart lives. As the train with Donovan on board passes by, the magnitude of his important assignment completely sinks in. The Berlin Wall is that impassable line in the sand that he must cross to seek justice and save lives. The meticulous details that Spielberg implements in every scene makes you feel like you are immersed into this significant moment in history. Spielberg once again brings his talent to an old-school thriller that shows us the importance of our Constitution and holding onto our moral principles in doing the right thing.
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks teaming up for ‘Bridge of Spies’ is sure to please audiences looking for a solidly entertaining look at the Cold War through a nostalgic lens. Check out the official trailer https://youtu.be/2-2x3r1m2I4.