As indomitably towering in its director, star and writers, Bridges of Spies is stubbornly old-fashioned both in concept and in execution. Co-written by the Coen brothers, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks all add up, in theory and in practice (mostly) to be a winning combination. It’s simple math. It’s a throwback adult drama to a time when there was a clear Us. vs. Them and when doing the right thing (or, indeed, what the right thing even was) was obvious from the start.
It’s 1960 and the height of the Cold War. James B. Donovan (Hanks) is an insurance lawyer given the task of defending suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Everyone believes him guilty but want propriety to stand so Donovan, saint that he is, accepts. Soon, he develops a friendship with Abel sparing him if not conviction than the death penalty with the argument that he could be a bargaining chip in the future.
He was proven quite right when the Soviets shot down the American U2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers. He, along with Yale student Fredric Pryor, were held captive in East Berlin while Donovan was once again called upon by his government to oversee the exchange – Abel for Powers and, if possible, Pryor.
Like a recent but very different vehicle for an A-List director/star pairing – The Martian (my review here) this film is a showcase for Hanks. As protagonist and lawyer James B. Donovan, it seems less a character Hanks plays than the persona Hanks has developed over his dominant decades as a movie star. This is made all the more surreal by the fact that Donovan was a very real person. If his portrayal is any indication, Hanks and Donovan would have been best of friends in real life.
It’s easy to see what Spielberg saw in this story as well. Right and wrong are rarely so clearly delineated as they are here by Donovan’s refreshingly-milquetoast quest for justice. While in Berlin negotiating the prison exchange at the heart of the film, Donovan’s CIA handlers ask him what happened to his coat (he was forced to trade it for directions to the Soviet embassy). “Oh, you know, spy stuff,” Hanks replies dryly.
The line is also a good example of what the film is: a mundane spy story that is extraordinary because of it is so ordinary. Donovan is the pillar of morality navigating the murky ambiguity of national espionage. Repeatedly, suspicious observers ask why in the hell he is doing all that he doing? Mostly for Donovan, it’s because its the right thing to and because he wants to go home to bed as quickly as possible. He’s essentially me on a Saturday night.
Hanks’ star wattage is only challenged by the distinct character created by Rylance, playing the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. With aloof politeness and a passion for painting, he strikes an intriguing figure at the center of the drama, one that Spielberg, master storyteller that he is, does not spoil by overexposing. For much of the second and third acts following his trial, Abel disappears while Donovan negotiates in Berlin. It is a strategic move and one that keeps Abel a powerful figure to both the audience and Donovan.
As with all Spielberg films, the production detail is scrumptious whether it is New York circa 1960 or the snowy Berlin of the same year. Most notably, Thomas Newman delivers a beautiful score. Most of the supporting cast pop in and out with little impression whether it’s Alan Alda, Peter McRobbie or Jesse Plemons. Especially wasted is Amy Ryan, an Oscar-nominated actress stuck with the role of thankless spouse to Donovan.
I anticipate Oscar nominations for all the principals involved but I certainly hope no awards. There are other, more worthy films to have come out already and we’re not even to November yet. That said, we should all be thankful for the reliable Spielberg and Hanks churning out compelling, capable entertainment in their sleep.