Your country may be wrong, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies sadly admits. But it maintains that a solid American family man can always be trusted. In the Cold War, as at home, father knows best.
That father is Spielberg regular Tom Hanks, or rather James Donovan, who presents himself as a plain-talking, uncomplicated insurance company lawyer. In the sequence that introduces him, Donovan coolly parses a claim, insisting that a single incident cannot be multiplied into several payouts. The roundabout conversation feels at the time like an indulgence, if not for Hanks then for the director. But it will later, well, pay off.
There are no extraneous elements in this carefully structured docudrama, which juxtaposes East and West with parallel scenes and emulates vintage Hollywood fare as painstakingly as it reconstructs 1957 Brooklyn and 1962 Berlin.
It’s in Brooklyn that we meet the phlegmatic man who calls himself Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an amateur painter with a British accent. That his identity is indistinct is shown by the way he, working on a self-portrait, ponders his face in a mirror. Abel is a Soviet spy, according to the FBI agents who bust him in a deftly choreographed sequence. To give the appearance of a fair trial, Donovan is enlisted to defend Abel — but not to make a fuss about lack of warrants and such. Constitutional protections don’t apply to Commies (a fact that provokes comparisons to current questions about the pursuit of presumed terrorists). “Don’t go Boy Scout on me,” Donovan is warned.
He does, not that it helps Abel’s case. But Donovan gets a chance to earn another merit badge when spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet territory. Donovan, whose barely mentioned credentials include lawyering at the Nuremberg Trials and for the OSS, is dispatched secretly to Berlin to swap Abel for Powers. He tells his wife (Amy Ryan) and four kids he’s going fishing in Scotland.
Upon arriving, Donovan encounters the newly erected Berlin Wall and learns that an American grad student (Will Rogers) is trapped behind it. Donovan insists on freeing the kid as well as Powers, over the objections of his callous CIA handler. The U.S. government men are just as calculating as the Soviets and East Germans Donovan faces when he steps through the Iron Curtain.
There’s some tension in the Berlin chapter, especially during Donovan’s visit to the eastern sector. But there’s also absurdist humor, likely the contribution of Ethan and Joel Coen; they’ve reworked Matt Charman’s original script into something resembling a screenplay they might actually shoot themselves.
The conniving Soviets and East Germans are ridiculous but also deadly, as Donovan is reminded when he happens to witness a brutal incident at the wall. Yet rather than emphasize the grimness of it all, Spielberg takes his usual sweet-and-sour approach. Abel, who may be killed if he returns home, is even given a droll tagline, as if he were in a screwball comedy.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski employs a drained color palette that suggests both the gray 1950s and faded film stock. As is typical of the director, the movie’s period details are keyed less to history than to the era’s cinematic style. In sensibility if not content, Bridge of Spies is as much a movie buff’s homage as Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Like a classic Hollywood regular-guy hero, Donovan returns home quietly, and wins his brood’s adoration without saying a word. But then the final parallel scene conjures horror from an utterly innocent moment, and sour replaces sweet as the movie’s end note. The take-charge dad can run his job, his life, and his family, but random evil is beyond his control.