Clad, metaphorically, in a shining armor of truth, and wielding an equally luminous sword of righteousness, Tom Hanks as attorney James Donovan is the embodiment of American virtue, right down to the meat loaf he has for dinner, the which is not touched until he has said grace with his wife and three kids. There was, no doubt also apple pie for dessert, but the scene cuts before we get that far.
Donovan is, therefore, the perfect foil for the political expediency in which he finds himself embroiled in BRIDGE OF SPIES. It’s to the credit of Hanks, America’s everyman, that said idiom never grates during the 2 hours and 22 minutes of the film’s running time, even when the plot drags on long enough with its slick Hollywood flourishes to overstay its welcome. Hanks is so brimming with both decency, and a particularly Yankee brand of good cheer, that while the story itself veers into the cornfield, he himself maintains an endearing homespun nobility. This is a man who wants to do the right thing for his country, and all he wants in return is to go home get a good night’s sleep.
Based on true event, BRIDGE OF SPIES is set during the Cold War, when the nuclear stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union created a rampant spy culture concerned with keeping tabs on what the other was doing with all those nuclear warheads. When a Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is put on trial in 1957 for spying on America, the government wants him to have a first-rate defense, or at least seem to have one. Hence the recruitment of Donovan, a New York insurance lawyer who had been a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. He’s less than happy about it, but puts those feelings aside in order to do his patriotic duty. His interpretation of that duty includes actually putting on a defense for Abel to the best of his ability. His innocence about the sacrosanct nature American justice, though, is shattered when government agents begin tailing him, the judge in the case has already made up his mind, and the American public, as depicted in the subway he rides to work, looks at him with dangerous disapproval. His paradigms are also shifted when he unexpectedly bonds with his client, a man who may be on the other side of the political fence, but one who, as Donovan discovers, behaves with honor, refusing to divulge secrets and accepting his lot as a spy whose cover has been blown.
This incident in jurisprudence alone would have made for a fine film about the meaning of justice on a world stage, but Abel’s story didn’t end there. It eventually became entwined with that of Francis Gary Powers ( square-jawed Austin Stowell), the pilot of the U2 spy plane shot down over Soviet territory in 1960, making it imperative that the United States get Powers back before he gave away any secrets, and opening the door to a swap for Abel. And, of course, Donovan, having a history with Abel, and no official ties to the government to muddle the political waters, is the man to negotiate the specifics.
Hanks is given many opportunities to wax loquacious about the secular holiness of the Constitution, and the basic rights of man that it guarantees. Concepts, he opines, that are what make us Americans. He waxes without a grain of salt, or a whiff of irony. His charm and palpable conviction is what prevents his speeches from being either stale or corny. When he gets to Berlin, where for complicated political reasons, the exchange is to be made, he brings that same charm and steadfast conviction to the murk of international relations, where there are no rules, only the chaos of a post-war world.
As a showcase for Hanks, the role of Donovan is superb. The film itself, though, is rife with the standard tropes we expect from director Steven Spielberg. There is craftsmanship and a keen understanding of cinema as a visual medium capable of powerful storytelling by means of a well-executed mise en scene. Has there been a better rendering of what it’s like to have a plane fail you in mid-flight than the sequence in which Powers’ plane disintegrates around him? The camera sweeps dramatically, camera angles define characters with angles that render them monumental, or miniscule. There is also the signature Spielbergian sentimentality that stops just short of overweening, and the foreshadowing and call outs that scamper dangerously close to formulaic. It’s only Hanks’ sincerity of emotion, for example, that saves Donovan’s reaction to an image of kids playfully scaling backyard fences from being a heavy-handed reminder of Donovan witnessing kids being machine-gunned trying to scale the Berlin Wall. It also saves the gloss of a sanitized Hollywood treatment of life-and-death situations. Though he once again visits German soldiers victimizing a helpless populace, Spielberg never quite finds the necessary suspense in the moments that need them. Things never quite cross over into full-blown hackney cliché, but if there is any real suspense in the film, it’s that of the audience waiting with bated breath to see if he will take that final fatal plunge. And that only serves to take the audience out of the film’s reality, focusing instead on its artifice, not its story.
There is more freshness in Donovan’s reaction to the absurdities of his situation. The script, co-written by the Coen Brothers with Matt Charmin, mines the quirks of governments pretending not to be doing what they are, in fact, instigating. That, and Rylance’s laconically chipper Abel are the most vibrant elements here.
The most poignant, wrenching part of the film isn’t about captured spies or cloak-and-dagger, but Donovan’s son. Spielberg has an almost mystical relationship with kids on film, and having a classroom full of kids watching the classic duck-and-cover film from the 1950s, including its scenes of total devastation is a sobering moment about the effects of adults acting like children when they have the means to end the planet as we know it. The best scene in the film has Donovan discovering his son in the bathroom, surrounded by survival pamphlets and maps. He’s making plans for when the Soviets drop the bomb, up to and including figuring out where his house falls in the radius of destruction, and explaining it to his father with a seriousness that no kid should have to experience. It’s the single most powerful scene about the Cold War in BRIDGE OF SPIES, and it alone is worth the price of admission, not just for what it says about the world in 1957, but what is says about the adults running the world today.