It’s brilliant, really. What’s the quickest way to establish the humanity of two leading characters in a Cold War drama? Give them both the sniffles.
“Bridge of Spies” does that, and more. The film is an anomaly — a confident, slightly square, highly satisfying example of old-school Hollywood craftsmanship, starring a major movie star brandishing a briefcase, and a handkerchief, rather than a pistol.
The trailers for director Steven Spielberg’s first film since 2012’s “Lincoln” aren’t quite telling the truth. They promise a ridiculous degree of screw-tightening suspense amid imminent global destruction. The movie’s narrative (more or less true) contains those elements, but sparingly. It’s closer to John le Carre than to Tom Clancy. Some moviegoers at a recent sneak preview seemed thrown by the rhythm of the thing, its devotion to steady, sure-footed storytelling. It’s best to know going in that this isn’t “Argo,” entertaining as that film was, culminating in bad guys running around tarmacs with machine guns.
On the other hand, Spielberg has no interest in making a documentary. He’s in love with the ravishing fakery of the movies he watched as a kid, the ones he went on to re-investigate decades later as a great American filmmaker. Adapted freely from the historical record, like any good fact-based but not fact-bound docudrama, “Bridge of Spies” honors the righteous underdog, triumphant.
Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, a Brooklyn, N.Y., insurance claims lawyer and former Nuremberg trials prosecutor. Not that many knew about it at the time, but Donovan negotiated a tricky exchange of Soviet and American spies: KGB mole Rudolf Abel (born Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher), captured in New York in 1957, as a trade for the U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot down over the USSR in 1960 and captured.
On his own initiative, Donovan rolled a third man into the trade. American doctoral candidate Frederic Pryor was picked up and detained on the hostile side of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Two Americans, Powers and the forgotten Pryor, for Abel: Could the right negotiator pull off such a lopsided trade? “Bridge of Spies,” which takes its title from the Glienicke Bridge linking West Berlin with Potsdam, answers that question in due course.
Not long after the swap occurred in the 1960s, a movie based on the little-noted event reached the screenplay stage. Gregory Peck was mentioned as Donovan, opposite Alec Guinness as Abel. We can imagine the outcome. Peck’s gravely righteous aura made him a kind of extra-super-mega-American stalwart and, in the wrong hands, or the wrong project, a bit of a pill.
Hanks is a different story. Like everything about Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” Hanks’ performance makes relaxed professionalism and genial decency look easy. The role is what it is: an exemplar of homespun virtues, an Everyman with a patient, stalwart wife (Amy Ryan, reliably fine, though a scene or two more would’ve helped) and kids more concerned about ducking and covering and a Russian invasion than their dad’s clandestine whereabouts once the Berlin affair gets underway.
Donovan is not larger than life; he’s an ordinary hero with the sniffles, Capraesque to the core if Capra had ever made a Cold War spy picture. At one point, Donovan refers to himself, Powers and Abel as the three most hated men in America. The second Hanks says it, you can feel the crowd thinking as one: Naaaah.
Because he’s relatively new to multiplex audiences, Mark Rylance will likely walk off with the acting honors for “Bridge of Spies.” He looks nothing like the real Abel, but in a largely nonverbal, supremely poker-faced performance — even his stuffy nose is subtle — Rylance suggests a forlorn practitioner of deception who recognizes a lucky break when he sees it. His luck is Donovan, a man tasked with defending the rights of a Soviet agent (albeit a fairly ineffective one) at an especially nervous and jingoistic time in American history.
Such times have a way of cycling back around. To the degree that “Bridge of Spies” can be characterized as championing a cause beyond freedom and the hardy U.S. Constitution, it argues implicitly for humane treatment of prisoners, both foreign and domestic. It’s a sound business approach, geopolitically speaking.
There’s a lovely cat-and-mouse overture, as FBI agents trail Abel through the subways, sidewalks and parks of Brooklyn back when, as John Cheever famously put it, “almost everybody wore a hat.” Spielberg’s climax, set on the fateful bridge, gins up the suspense but shrewdly, without cheap tricks. In between those set pieces, “Bridge of Spies” concerns itself largely with civil if cryptic conversations such as the ones between Donovan and his CIA middleman (Scott Shepherd); between Donovan and the judge (Dakin Matthews, a splendid character actor) gunning for Abel’s execution; between Donovan and an East German Stasi agent, played by another ace character actor, Burghart Klaussner. I’d happily see “Bridge of Spies” again just for Klaussner’s scene, full of florid gesticulating and a genuinely funny temper tantrum.
As for Rylance, he makes the bit involving the hollow nickel containing microfilm (“The F.B.I. Story” in 1959 used it; the Abel case was known as “the hollow nickel case”) a crafty study in minimalism. Rylance does little; we lean in to catch it.
The film’s atmosphere is thick and luxuriously managed. In his 13th collaboration with director Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski keeps everything in period, but that can mean whatever the cinematographer and the director want it to mean. Spielberg and Kaminski are as interested in magic as they are in realism. At one point, we see a room in muted color, and then, in the same shot, we spy Donovan and Abel in the adjoining room, and they’re in virtual black-and-white tones. Kaminski’s palette favors noir shadows cut by blinding contrasts; he relishes the sheen of pearly white light hitting wet pavement or the hoods of old automobiles.
Often the actors are placed in near-silhouette against a wall of hot, flat light, even before we get to the Soviet interrogation scenes with the captured pilot Powers (Austin Stowell, adequate in a thinly conceived part). The design and execution of “Bridge of Spies” draw attention to themselves, but just in the right ways. Note how Spielberg stages and films a simple transitional shot, of people spilling out of a courtroom, hit by a slew of photographers and newshounds. How many directors know how to do that sort of shot without making it a cliche?
The screenplay by Matt Charman was punched up by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, and the Coens’ mordant sense of humor subtly energizes each new move on the chessboard. Certain details in the script appear to establish, consciously or not, a linguistic strategy of triplets: the way Donovan says things like “I, I, I” or “very, very, very important” for emphasis, for example, or the three times Abel offers the rejoinder “Would it help?” to his lawyer. Now and then, you may feel like interrupting Donovan’s latest expository reiteration of the terms of the swap with a “Right, we got it!” But it’s better than being lost, I guess. Clarity of meaning and design is everything to Spielberg.
“Bridge of Spies” plants one foot in Hollywood mythmaking and the other in American history and American values, including the right to an unpopular cause. If you can handle the occasional yellow-highlighted thesis line — “You’re not a Communist. So why are you defending one?” Donovan’s son asks at one point — you’ll be amply rewarded by not quite a great film, but a very good one.
‘Bridge of Spies’
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:15.