Bridge of Spies, the new film from Steven Spielberg, is a movie that feels like it could have been made decades ago. That is a compliment. It is old-fashioned in its approach and technique, and it possesses a wry, handsome integrity. In form, it is the story of a decent man compelled to do the right thing, a favorite theme of Frank Capra, who is as good a representative of classic Hollywood as you can get. Spielberg, who seems to be following a Capra line of thought at the moment (2012’s Lincoln shares similar DNA with this one), bestows this well-pedigreed material (a screenplay co-written by none other than Joel and Ethan Coen) with his typical brand of exemplary craftsmanship. If Bridge of Spies ends up feeling like a minor work within the impressive filmographies of those involved, that shouldn’t be a mark against it, because it is a terrific piece of work all the same.
Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who in 1959 is selected by the US State Department to prepare the defense of one Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is accused of being a Russian spy. There’s no doubt of Abel’s guilt. We see that in a nearly-wordless opening sequence in which the FBI inexorably closes in on the man, who is indeed trading in stolen secrets and manages to dispatch some of the evidence even while entering custody. What Donovan is needed for is to provide a legal opponent for the state, which will create the appearance of due process, making whatever happens to Abel nice and tidy. Donovan reluctantly takes on the case, and by actually taking it seriously, he summons the ire of his fellow citizens, who see him as standing in the way of letting a traitor hang. But it is not that simple at all. And Abel is also a quiet and likable man, a reserved fellow who doesn’t like unnecessary gestures. At one point, Donovan asks him if he ever worries. Abel’s succinct reply: “Would it help?”
The case of Rudolf Abel raises questions, then, of what the line is between citizen and traitor, and whether those on one side of that line deserve the same protections as those on the other. As far as Donovan is concerned, the US has a responsibility to give the man a fair trial, one that forwards a non-lethal outcome, for ethical and moral reasons. And his appeal, when it comes, strikes a key note of practicality: wouldn’t it be best, he argues, to keep Abel imprisoned and safe, so that if we ever need to retrieve one of our own spies we can afford to make a swap? And indeed, when a U2 pilot named Powers (Austin Stowell) goes missing in East Germany, Donovan’s warning becomes eerily prescient. All of this is based on fact, including the part that happens next, where Donovan is sent to Berlin (just as the city is building the wall) to negotiate a swap, and soon finds himself trying to secure the release of both Powers and an innocent US student, who has been detained deliberately by the East Germans in order to sabotage American interest in the spy exchange.
This is a good solid story, told with clarity and precision by Spielberg, and also with more than a little humor. This is a dialogue-driven film, especially in the second half, and it is dialogue written with intelligent wit as Donovan has to conduct obtuse conversations with both Soviet and East German officials. These are discussions cloaked in veiled threats and persistent lies, sometimes told with skill, sometimes less so, and always seeming part of some Byzantine strategy. Eventually, Donovan has to buck his CIA handlers in order to do what he feels is right, and his conclusions draw parallels to present-day events, as well as leading to one of the tensest climaxes in a film this year. The cast, which is uniformly superb (also showcasing Amy Ryan and Alan Alda), make a meal of this strong story, which is told with such effortless skill by Spielberg and the Coens that they make it look impressively easy.