At the close of Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, New York insurance lawyer James Donovan looks out the window of the train on his way to work and sees a couple of teenage lads hopping over a backyard fence. Yes, we get it: He’s safely home in the land of the free, not back in East Berlin where he has recently witnessed fence-hoppers getting shot.
Spielberg has never been a subtle director but the Cold War was not a subtle time – at least not in terms of its competing ideologies. Yet this satisfying thriller based on the actual story of Donovan’s spy-swap negotiations rises above the occasional bit of patriotic bombast or predictable plotting thanks especially to the performances of actors Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance playing both sides of the conflict as admirable in their way. The ever-reliable Hanks sympathetically personifies all in America that is worth fighting for, while his British colleague’s surprisingly comic version of Rudolf Abel portrays the Russian spy as a man quietly steadfast in his loyalty to a different cause.
The action begins with Abel’s arrest in a Brooklyn hotel room. The man is a mysterious little Sunday painter who seems to have spent time in Britain and certainly displays remarkable British phlegm in the face of espionage charges after a cache of listening devices and cameras is discovered in his nearby studio. He’s guilty but he needs a fair trial so Donovan, who had worked for the prosecution at Nuremberg, is approached to take on a wildly unpopular client. Despite the baying crowds that soon surround his pleasant house and pretty family, Donovan agrees to give the Communist spy the best defence he can – and explains exactly why in a nice little speech about American values that he makes to a CIA agent as he refuses to break client-solicitor confidentiality and report what Abel has told him.
So, we find ourselves in the midst of the familiar story of a good man who is doing the right thing despite the public condemnation of his blinkered neighbours. Here Hanks’s fundamental likeability, his warm representation of decency rather than self-righteousness, is critical to making this idealism stirring rather than cloying.
Meanwhile, a less interesting subplot revolves around the recruitment and training of American pilots to fly spy planes high over Soviet territory. When Donovan saves Abel from the electric chair by reminding a judge that the Americans may some day want a Russian prisoner to swap, the pieces all fall neatly into place: Donovan’s next assignment is to try to arrange the exchange of the imprisoned Abel for U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot down and captured over Soviet territory on what appears to be his very first spy mission.
Of course, real life was not quite this neat – there were five years between Abel’s arrest in 1957 and the eventual exchange on Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge in 1962 – but Spielberg successfully turns the segue from the spy’s trial to his release into a fast-paced thriller animated by the dutiful Donovan as an unlikely Cold War operative. Shuttling between West and East Berlin, he finds himself embroiled in negotiations involving the same cynical CIA agent, a wily Russian diplomat and a slippery East German lawyer outraged over Soviet meddling. His assignment is greatly complicated by his own stubborn insistence that he will rescue not only the downed pilot but also an American economics student who got caught with a camera on the wrong side of the wall.
The scenes in Berlin, of the days surrounding the wall’s construction, of the eastern sector’s subsequent decay and violence, of the tense relations between the East Germans and their Soviet masters, are darkly intriguing, yet the film is also deftly enlivened by flashes of humour throughout. (The script is written by those masters of black comedy, Joel and Ethan Coen, along with Matt Charman.) In that regard, Rylance’s performance is particularly interesting as he infuses Abel’s dry understatements on his predicament with just the right dose of quiet irony. Wisely, Spielberg has cast no villains in Bridge of Spies: Here, the ultimate triumph of the West is that the East is shown to be human.Report Typo/Error