In Bridge of Spies, the Oscar-chasing Cold War thriller based on true spy games waged decades ago between the United States and its communist rivals, Steven Spielberg hearkens back to a more genteel time in backroom, shadow-skirting politics. The master director jumps to 1962, the same year the fictional James Bond put a suave face on international espionage. While 007 was battling SPECTRE and romancing Ursula Andress in his first film appearance, a real American hero was quietly saving lives and the country’s reputation amid escalating nuclear tensions on both sides of the globe.
In Spielberg’s telling he did it without throwing a single punch or shooting a single bullet, let alone a dirty look. Bronx-born attorney James B. Donovan, played here by frequent Spielberg collaborator Tom Hanks, is instead an extraordinary everyman in a Saks suit who’s first pressed into duty by law firm buddies who have elected him to execute the impossible.
His first task is an unenviable one. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a British-born Soviet sleeper agent who paints contemplative self-portraits while shuffling around Manhattan gathering intel unnoticed, has been arrested for handing state atomic secrets off to his Communist overlords. To ensure Abel is given a fair trial—or at least, what appears to be a fair trial, conducted in good faith by the American democratic system—the patriotic Donovan, a former prosecutor at Nuremberg, is to offer himself as Abel’s defense counsel in the name of justice.
Several intriguing real-life stories intersect in Bridge of Spies hailing from a crucial period of Cold War theatrics spanning the years 1957 to 1962, not the least of which is the story of Russian spy Abel (real name: Vilyam Fisher). The meek-mannered KGB agent is played with fine nuance by Mark Rylance as a stalwart shrug of a man resolute in his own loyalties to his country, even under threat of imprisonment, possible torture, and execution. His own unwavering patriotism earns Donovan’s respect, and as Donovan resists the temptation to moralize or rebuke the man whose life is in his hands, the audience follows his lead.
The CIA comes calling hoping Donovan will betray his Russian charge, which is when the erstwhile insurance lawyer realizes how deep he’s stepped in it. So naïve is he to cloak-and-dagger drama that one dark and rainy night he sends himself, and the audience, into a pulse-pounding paranoia thinking he’s being followed in a marvelously executed feat of editing courtesy of Spielberg collaborator Michael Kahn.
There are other sympathetic players in the game, but none we get to know so intimately as Donovan and Abel, who form an unspoken friendship built on mutual respect and a bygone sense of dark, humanist humor. Donovan earns and endures his share of public scorn for defending an enemy to America; not only does he mount a spirited defense, he also narrowly loses a Supreme Court appeal over unconstitutional search measures used to obtain evidence against Abel. Even Donovan’s wife (the underutilized Amy Ryan) questions Donovan’s dogged drive to help a traitor, and invite the social contempt of his family by association.
Halfway into Bridge of Spies the courtroom drama gives way to spy thriller and Spielberg turns up the Le Carre quotient, buoyed by a Thomas Newman score and sumptuous cinematography by Janusz Kaminski, who paints his compositions with such mastery you can feel the weight of the air, flecked with sunlight, in the film’s opening scene. After fighting to save Abel from the death sentence by arguing that he could be a valuable chip in the country’s pocket, the perfect political pickle pops up. The Russians have shot down a CIA spy plane and captured its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, in an embarrassing snafu that would later become known as the U-2 Incident of 1960.
Armed with his resourceful mind, ironclad morals, and—most importantly—the fact that he can’t be identified as an agent of the United States, should he be detained and scrutinized, Donovan is once again recruited for an impossible patriotic task: Go to East Berlin and negotiate the prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers, who has likewise stood trial for his crimes against the Soviets. Unlike Abel, who is treated with principled if resentful niceties under American care, Powers is subjected to sleep deprivation torture and relentless interrogation in harrowing scenes that resonate with pointedly current relevance.
The fact that Bridge of Spies places the weight of the world on the shoulders of a briefcase-toting lawyer feels quaintly nostalgic. Hanks is channeling a bygone Capraesque Jimmy Stewart decency we rarely see these days, let alone in films about political warfare, torture, personal liberties, and due process owed to foreign agents who today would be labeled terrorists. Here Spielberg finds the perfect use for his squinty dignity, that pinch of the eye Hanks hadn’t yet earned when he was a much younger man.
Within that squint lives a vulnerable, imperfect, tireless nobility. Hanks’ Donovan is what a true American looks like, the film tells us, even while his colleagues, neighbors, strangers, and family suspect otherwise. The script, tinged with engaging thrills and welcome bits of dark humor by co-writers Joel and Ethan Coen and Matt Charman, also urges us to forgive the haters for casting their judgy eyes down on Donovan, for shooting up his house in harassment, for thinking and calling him a traitor. They didn’t know any better, after all. If the Internet had been around, Donovan would’ve been doxxed and swatted before anyone had a clue he was secretly doing right by them all.
If more people were like Donovan, would war be as inhumane as it always is? The answer is both yes and of course not, because how could conflict be less so in the digital age, as governments and individuals collect more information against more foes past, current, and future, as stakes rise and basic freedoms disappear in the name of national and personal security? Bridge of Spies demonstrates how, try as we might, it can be as difficult to learn from the past as it is to stand alone on principle against the rising, raging tide. But it can’t hurt to be reminded.