Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies is a Cold War era story about integrity. It's about living the ideals of the USA, even when doing do puts you at risk from your fellow citizens. Tom Hank's plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer lassoed into representing Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who is charged with being a spy for the Russians. Donovan is reluctant – who wants to be the man defending a communist spy? - but when he finally agrees, he sets out to give him the best defense possible, because that is the American way.
Understanding this idea has been difficult for a lot of Americans over the years. They get that we believe everybody deserves a fair trial. But when the “everybody” is a flag burner, or a racist, or a child molester, or a spy, etc., the consensus seems to be, “put up a good front for the miserable son of a bitch, but don't do anything that might actually let him get away with the crime of which we are certain he is guilty.”
SPOILER ALERT: In the fact-based film, Donovan loses the case, but manages to keep Abel from being executed, in part by arguing that it would be good to have a humanely treated enemy agent on hand in the event one of our people ever gets charged with spying. Jump from 1957 to 1962, when U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers gets captured and held prisoner. A deal needs to be made - outside of official channels – and Donovan is asked to be the civilian to take care of the negotiations. END SPOILER ALERT.
Sometimes Spielberg dramas taste like medicine. This isn't one of those times. Spielberg and company (including writers Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen) keep the burners on medium, which turns out to be the right setting to heat a study of integrity without overcooking it. I wish the filmmaker had expanded his color palette – he uses so much blue that the movie looks like a Minority Report prequel. Frequent Spielberg collaborator Thomas Newman's score is about what he usually does. I thought it was laid on a little thick, but complaining about too many strings in a Spielberg movie is like griping about too much peppiness in a Pee-Wee Herman show.
There are action scenes – we see an air fight and a parachute nightmare, along with some unforgettable moments in Berlin, where the infamous wall is just being finished – but the focus of the story is on the negotiations Donovan makes, on and off the job. Tom Hanks is perfect for the role, reminding us at times that he is his generation's Jimmy Stewart. I reckon he'll get an Oscar nomination for his work; not because he's doing anything earth-shattering, but because we really like Hanks, and we enjoy giving him trophies whenever he takes the time to do a film of substance like this. Mark Rylance will almost certainly get a Best Supporting Actor nomination as well, his performance is sly and his ongoing joke about worrying is a good one.
While not one of his best, Bridge of Spies is a good Spielberg film. It reminds us of how vital it is to stand for your ideals, even when the crowd turns on you. It reminds us that the people branded as villains by their enemy are considered patriots at home. And it tells us that if you need a massive wall to keep your political system in order, you probably should take another look at what kind of political system it is that you're running.