At the height of the Cold War, suspected Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is captured by the FBI in New York. Wanting merely the appearance of a fair trial for the supposed saboteur, the Brooklyn Bar Association pressures distinguished lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) into accepting the case. Despite losing the proceedings, Donovan manages to convince the judge to spare Abel’s life in anticipation of the inevitable capture of an American spy by the opposition – for which Abel could serve as a trading tool. Sure enough, when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russia and American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is detained by the German Democratic Republic, Donovan heads to East Berlin to aid the CIA in orchestrating a complex prisoner exchange – where lies, deceit, and danger are the only guarantees.
A lengthy running time isn’t specifically a headache for a movie’s entertainment value. But for many directors (particularly those who produce their own pictures and therefore answer to no one when it comes to editing), an overstuffed runtime merely demonstrates the artist’s inability to cut out extraneous material. In their own eyes, everything they do is significant. “Bridge of Spies” is just such an example; it contains some truly mesmerizing moments, but it also incorporates plenty of lulls and unnecessary subplots and details. Its failure at pacing only serves to dilute the absolute greatness of key sequences, which are few and far between.
At its best, “Bridge of Spies” is something of a Cold War “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as it focuses on the American justice system, the prejudices of human peers, and the politics of judiciary constituents. It also possesses an amusing contrast between both sides of a tense conflict, each determining whether or not spies should be treated as criminals or enemies or worse. Are spies merely governmental employees? Should any sovereign body judge the use of espionage when they also utilize an identical tactic? In this way, the film also resembles the thought-provoking back-and-forth of “The Departed” or “Frost/Nixon” or even “The Ides of March.” But at its worst, it’s slower than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (an anti-James Bond type of political thriller involving incomplex characters doing complex things), attempting to tell multiple stories with just enough attention to appear as if additional, integral scenes were left out. It’s nearly two movies, with neither one told fully.
Fortunately, Tom Hanks is pleasant and convincing as a war hero of the non-combatant kind, humanized through plenty of humor – and an undeniable levity that prevents any of the dramatic components from feeling severe. There’s a playfulness continually aimed at the latent hostility (perhaps a signature tone for director Spielberg). What is most resonant, however, is the chemistry between Hanks and Abel, who participate in a few stellar moments and one grand scene of reflection – an un-manipulative, simple, heartfelt contemplation of meaningful remembrances and their consequence for a different time and place. Sadly, because the film also packs on so many extra characters and subplots, the weightiness of that poignant scene is stretched out and weakened – to the point that the project as a whole cannot be redeemed by two phenomenal portrayals.