There are no major surprises or splashy special effects in Bridge of Spies, the latest historical drama from former blockbuster maven Steven Spielberg. The film, unlike the sides involved in the Cold War, immediately puts all of its cards on the table, but in a manner that's showy without ever being melodramatic. From the moment he first appears onscreen, Tom Hanks holds the center of the movie as James Donovan, an idealist and dedicated patriot who is forced to quickly evolve from successful New York insurance lawyer to high-stakes international hostage negotiator. Donovan is a man who believes deeply in due process and common decency, despite living in a culture in which most Americans are more concerned with feeling safe by maintaining an unyielding upper hand over their enemies.
Bridge opens on Rudolf Abel (masterfully played by Mark Rylance), a nebbishy, unassuming Brooklynite who was arrested for acting as an undercover spy for the Soviet Union. As all of the United States rushes to put this symbol of Communist espionage in the electric chair, Donovan gives his all in making sure his "guy" is treated like any other defendant, and bristles when he realizes that even the presiding judge (a stodgy grump ably played by veteran actor Dakin Matthews) couldn't care less whether or not Abel is afforded his basic rights of due process. Ultimately, Donovan succeeds: He convinces the judge to consider his feelings if an American spy were in Abel's predicament, and also points out that keeping his client alive could be the key to getting one of their own hostages returned in the future. As a result, Abel is sentenced to prison rather than death, while Donovan becomes a pariah whose personal and professional lives are both suddenly under siege.
Lo and behold, Donovan's prediction comes true: American fighter pilot Francis Gary Powers is taken prisoner a few years later after being shot down over the Soviet Union. Once again, Donovan is called upon for an unenviable task in the name of the Stars and Stripes, as he is handpicked to negotiate the trade of Abel for Powers with a contact named Vogel in East Germany. Things get even muddier when Donovan also tries to bring home a wrongfully imprisoned American student named Frederic Pryor, who had the misfortune of studying the economic effects of Communism as the Berlin Wall went up. As the insurance lawyer refuses to make any sort of deal without bringing both men home intact, he is caught in the middle of a showdown between a trio of countries who not only want to maintain their reputations and sense of superiority as the world watches, but who need to determine if their returning citizens managed to stay loyal while they were held in interrogative custody.
It seems almost redundant at this point to say that Tom Hanks is a talented actor, but his impeccably nuanced portrayal of a family man elevated to the role of national peacemaker represents the sort of masterful work we've come to expect from him. His amiable, observant delivery and presence give life to a man whose All-American stoicism and wit are coupled with ferocious assurance and resolve, and are backed by a steadfast belief in both the U.S. justice system and human decency; Hanks manages, in another elite performance, to capture Donovan's inner strength and wholesomeness without getting schmaltzy.
What might come as a welcome surprise to some audiences is how great Rylance is in the role of Rudolf Abel, as he finally lands his breakout role after years of excellent work as a trusted character actor. Abel comes across as an admirable man, despite being an enemy to America, and his strength lies in his steady, nonplussed demeanor and straight-faced levity. At the same time, the secrets and willpower hidden behind his furrowed face make him compelling. Like Donovan, we can't help but respect him, which draws a meaningful parallel between two men whose dedication to their countries places an enormous weight on their shoulders. Thanks to a terrific screenplay (co-written by Joel and Ethan Coen), the Soviet spy becomes one of the film's most noble and sympathetic characters.
The writing here is clever and weighty without being aggrandizing, and Spielberg's direction is sweeping without relying on a lot of bells and whistles (or copious explosions). The editing is superb, with meaningful associative cuts between home life, prison cells, classrooms, and other settings. Thomas Newman's score, however, is noticeably unsubtle. Thankfully, it's never bombastic enough to take viewers away from the onscreen action, although several of the movie's most important scenes could have stood on their own without a flurry of strings to manipulate and heighten our emotions.
Bridge of Spies is the product of talented and noble craftsmen, but it isn't a revolutionary film, nor does it feel the need to venture outside of the territory familiar to mainstream cinema. Yet it's tough to be disappointed when a story is brought to the screen with as much acumen as we see here. As in 2012's Lincoln, Spielberg is able to distill an entire time period into a singular event, thereby making the sweep of history feel intimate and meditative. Bridge of Spies is yet another high-water mark in his singular career, as well as another entry in his highly successful run of films (which also includes Schindler's List, Amistad, and Munich) about hugely important events in the past that changed the world. Ironically, the man who helped create the modern-day summer blockbuster is now intent on making compelling cinema from real-life history.