The Cold War has seldom seemed so cold as it is in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” The light is a pale wintry gray, particularly in the scenes set in Berlin at the time of the raising of the Wall. Spielberg’s favorite cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, shot the picture, and there are echoes of his “Schindler’s List” style in the visual bleakness.
When the picture opens in 1957, the U.S. is gripped by nuclear jitters and the FBI is feverishly hunting Soviet spies. When agents find and arrest one in Brooklyn, a Col. Rudolf Abel, that sets in motion the real-life events Spielberg cogently dramatizes in “Bridge of Spies.”
Although set more than 50 years ago, the picture strongly resonates with our present era of the war on terror. The hero is James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a prominent New York insurance attorney pressed to take on Abel’s defense to demonstrate to the world the fairness of the American justice system. The thing is, no one wants him to succeed, not the judge, and certainly not the government.
Abel (Mark Rylance, enigmatic and soft spoken) is viewed as being an enemy combatant not worthy of a vigorous defense, or indeed much of a defense at all. The parallels between Abel’s case and the situation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay are strongly drawn.
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Donovan fervently believes in the rule of law. And he articulates that belief before the Supreme Court as he appeals Abel’s guilty verdict, arguing that it is “who we are” as Americans and that the roadblocks raised to prevent Abel from getting a fair trial are badly at odds with that ideal.
The picture turns into a hall-of-mirrors spy drama when, years after losing the case but persuading the judge to spare Abel from the death penalty, Donovan is approached by the U.S. government to go to East Germany to negotiate a swap of Abel for downed U-2 spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). This mission is a forbiddingly ticklish one: He’s not an officially acknowledged negotiator, and the Soviets and East Germans he’s dealing with have conflicting agendas.
Hanks does a great job playing Donovan as a man of essential decency who nevertheless is an expert negotiator and a hard-headed realist. The skill with which Hanks navigates the intricacies of the plot amount to some of the best work of his career.
BRIDGE OF SPIES
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance and Alan Alda.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Running time: 2:22.
Rated: PG-13, for some violence and brief strong language.