Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Billy Magnussen, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers

Steven Spielberg shows that Cold War espionage films can still be entertaining. In Bridge of Spies, Spielberg borrows from a true story, combining a John le Carre thriller with a Frank Capra courtroom drama. What he creates is a slightly imperfect, very American film that still is deeply gratifying.

In 1957, Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (Rylance) was arrested in New York City on charges of conspiracy and spying. A British-born Russian émigré, Abel served in the Soviet military before and during World War II. After the war, Abel began working for the KGB in the US; there is no doubt about this.

Broadway and West End actor Mark Rylance proves his cinematic mettle as a Russian spy.

Broadway and West End actor Mark Rylance proves his cinematic mettle as a Russian spy.

Though they had a pretty airtight case, the CIA and FBI wanted to show the world that the American court system was fair. They recruited insurance lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) to represent Abel. What they didn’t bargain for was that Donovan was a skilled negotiator, in the vein of Clarence Darrow. He was both intensely patriot and crafty – an ACLU dream.

Back in the day, if this had been filmed (and it wouldn’t have ever gotten financial backing; America was and is furiously anti-Communist), Jimmy Stewart would’ve played Donovan, no doubt. In our day, Tom Hanks almost always represents that Everyman.

Donovan so successfully protected Abel that the US government recognized his talent for negotiating. When U-2 airman Gary Powers (Stowell) was captured in Russia, Donovan was unofficially tapped to broker the exchange of Abel for Powers. At that same time, the Berlin Wall was going up, and the German Democratic Republic had imprisoned a US student (the wholesomely named Will Rogers). With no one to officially answer to, Donovan decided to bargain for both Americans – two lives for the exchange of Abel to the Russians. The question was whether Donovan’s homespun skill could pull it off.

Steven Spielberg brings all his qualities - good and bad - to the screen.

Steven Spielberg brings all his qualities – good and bad – to the screen.

There is no doubt Spielberg brings all his talent to this film. The palette, the editing, and the pacing are phenomenal. He again taps the brilliant Janusz Kaminski for his cinematographer, and Thomas Newman provides the stirring, patriotic pastiche of a score.

The script is by relative unknown Matt Charman (who did the iffy adaption of the beautiful Irène Némirovsky’s novel Suite Française). The script polish is what makes this movie; Joel and Ethan Coen – of Fargo, Burn After Reading, and No Country for Old Men – give humor and light to the story. (They, in fact, were at one point thinking of filming it themselves.) It’s a joy to watch a film so buoyed by their eye for entertainment.

The script is ably buoyed by a polish from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen.

The script is ably buoyed by a polish from brothers Joel and Ethan Coen.

Sure, they and Spielberg pull a few punches. Spielberg still does those grand shots that feel a little manipulative – the large courtroom, the sweeping crane. Everything plays like Spielberg wants another Oscar nomination when he could just tell a simpler story. Hanks’ speeches are often a little grand, like…well, Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film is politically skewed, too, because America supposedly treats Abel much better than the Communists treat their two prisoners. (Apparently, back then, we didn’t have Guantanamo, because that’s where Abel would’ve gone today to be tortured.) Spielberg’s also never met a metaphor he doesn’t like to beat into our heads – in this case, the noble man standing alone: Donovan, Abel, Powers, and even the student Pryor. The film is really two stories brought together; in lesser hands, this would’ve been annoying. Here, it is merged excellently (though it makes for a longish movie). The Coen brothers’ script sort of forgets that Abel was a spy, recreating him as a humble, charmingly unaffected painter, easy for audiences to love.

However, in the role of Abel, Rylance almost steals the entire film. Rylance is better known as an Olivier and Tony Award-winning stage actor. Here, he shows in no uncertain terms that he needs a more national canvas. It’s a role easy to nominate – and perhaps win – Best Supporting Actor.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

I could ask whether a film like this needs to be made. Though the Cold War is over, we do still need messages about prisoner rights, nobility, Constitutional adherence, and American ideals. However, Bridge of Spies doesn’t ask troubling or intriguing questions of its audiences so much as it preaches – another Spielberg foible. In the end, instead, I asked if Bridge of Spies is worth our money and time. Is it entertaining? Are the characters fascinating? On those counts, the verdict is a resounding “Yes!”

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