The Cold War provides Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks with the opportunity to celebrate one man’s crusade for due process and constitutional propriety at a time when Americans were more likely to dispense with such niceties in dealing with perfidious Soviet agents out to damage the U.S. way of life. “Bridge of Spies” is rather like a version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” set against the backdrop of McCarthyism, Sputnik and the Bay of Pigs rather than southern racism. But though fastidiously made, in terms of both its evocative period setting and its skillful emotional manipulation, in the end the picture comes across as little more than a solid piece of middlebrow uplift, respectable but not outstanding—good, but certainly not the most memorable work of either director or star.
The script, credited to Matt Chapman and Ethan and Joel Coen, is based on the so-called “Hollow Nickel” case that led to the identification of a KGB cell operating in the U.S. in the mid-fifties (it was previously dramatized in highly abbreviated form in the 1959 James Stewart movie “The FBI Story”). But the specifics of the 1957 arrest of Rudolf Abel, one member of the cell—which involved years of investigation and the defection of one of his comrades—are ignored as agents simply burst into his apartment early in the film and take him into custody. The government wants a proper trial to demonstrate the quality of American justice to the world, and enlists James Donovan, who had formerly been part of the prosecution team at the Nuremberg war crime hearings and is now a partner in a New York firm, to represent Abel.
Our understanding that Donovan is devoted to the bedrock principles of American jurisprudence is assured by the casting of Tom Hanks in the role; no one represents a straightforward good-guy persona more effectively than he does. Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) encourages him to take the case, and after Donovan reluctantly agrees, he determines to handle it responsibly despite the efforts of the CIA, in the person of a pushy agent named Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), to persuade him to reveal details of his privileged conversations with Abel (Mark Rylance) and the obvious bias of the judge (Dakin Matthews) during the course of the trial. The details of the actual court proceedings are, again, severely truncated; the salient point is that while Abel is convicted, Donovan persuades the judge not to impose the death penalty, arguing prophetically that Abel might prove useful as a bargaining chip in a future trade with the Russians. Also significant is the fact that Donovan’s strong advocacy for Abel has earned him not only his client’s admiration but the hostility of the public. Even his family, his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and two children Peggy and Roger (Jillian Lebling and Noah Schnapp)—become targets of vigilantes, although they question Donovan’s work on behalf of the spy.
Into this story the script integrates a separate plot thread about the recruitment and training of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) as part of a team that will pilot U-2 spy planes over the USSR, culminating in his being shot down and captured in 1960. In 1962 Donovan is once again recruited by the government, this time to arrange—as a private citizen—a swap of Abel for Powers. The effort will require him to go into East Berlin at the very time when the Berlin Wall is being built, and engage in complicated negotiations that will not only balance Russian and East German demands with America’s refusal to recognize the East German government but also secure the freedom of a second US hostage, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a graduate student studying abroad. It all culminates in tense exchanges at two Berlin bridges that must be conducted virtually simultaneously to meet the demands of all parties.
The writers tie all this together with admirable economy, and Spielberg and Hanks invest it with a sense of one-man-doing-the-right-thing nobility that is emotionally satisfying even when it’s painted in very broad strokes. It has to be admitted that subtlety isn’t the major quality on display here. The East Germans with whom Donovan has to negotiate—not just a hotshot, westernized intermediary named Vogel (Sebastian Koch) but the East German defense chief (Burghart Klaussner)—are depicted as duplicitous, stupid or both, and a juxtaposition Spielberg posits between people trying the climb the Berlin Wall being shot with kids in New York happily jumping over neighborhood fences represents a crude visual tactic; so does a the-and-now comparison of the way passengers on the subway react to Donovan when he’s defending Abel and after he’s instrumental in freeing Powers, which plays directly into a viewer’s expectations about how he’d react in similar situations. “Bridge of Spies” should raise questions about how seriously issues of due process and constitutional protections are taken by many Americans with respect to today’s equivalent of Abel—accused terrorists or whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden. Whether it will, or just serve to provide back-patting assurance that our system of justice will ultimately prevail over blind prejudice and arguments from national security (a dubious argument indeed, given present experience) is an open question.
Still, even though it’s a manipulative crowd-pleaser in which the American system of justice triumphs because of the rectitude of a few good men, even if it seems to stumble on occasion, it works on that level because of the smooth writing, Spielberg’s customarily skillful direction, and the performances of Hanks and Rylance. The former’s virtues are well known, and he more than fulfills expectations—who else could carry off so expertly the humanizing business about Donovan suffering from a cold in the last stages of his negotiations? It’s Rylance who’s the real revelation here. Quiet and reserved—not unlike his turn as Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall”—he manages to make Abel a tragic figure rather than an odious one, and helps one understand how a genuine friendship could have developed between him and Donovan. The rest of the cast carries off their duties professionally, if without any particular distinction (only Koch stands out), and as usual with a Spielberg effort, the technical credits—Adam Stockhausen’s production design, Kasia Walicka Maimone’s costumes, Michael Kahn’s editing, Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography—are uniformly superb.
“Bridge of Spies” doesn’t tell the whole story of the “Hollow Nickel” case and its aftermath. But it stitches elements of it into what audiences will undoubtedly embrace as a feel-good tale of American righteousness even at the present time, when the same issues challenge us.