There is a sequence at the midpoint of Bridge of Spies that is simply spectacular. The famed and ill-fated flight of Francis Gary Powers is recreated in classic Spielberg style as the camera soars, falls, and generally rushes with organized terror alongside the burning plane. Together, the real-life CIA pilot and his observer plummet toward the Soviet Union like a Cold War Icarus.
It is here that Steven Spielberg implicitly crows he still “has it.” But along with an equally stunning account of the birth of the Berlin Wall, the scene is otherwise an anomaly—proof that he still is a master of the set-piece but also a reminder that the director has moved on to more intellectually challenging and adult fare. Now, the multifarious filmmaker regularly seeks to inform as much as entertain.
And to be sure, Bridge of Spies is as relevant as any of the director’s previous historical epics. In the shadow of a landmark U.S. deal with Iran and a gapingly open Guantanamo Bay detention center, it sometimes barely resembles a period piece at all. Much like the release of Lincoln during an election year, the themes of Spies are both rooted in their era and simultaneously timeless. For this picture ruminates with that lightest of touches on how we treat prisoners by any definition, the ability to negotiate with the dreaded and ambiguous enemy, and finally how to live up to our higher ideals in a globe of blurring espionage.
Thus enters James B. Donovan, played with such assurance and leading man charm by Tom Hanks that he has audiences in his corner with that first and smallest of smirks. In that scene, it represents a successful 1950s insurance lawyer about to go in for the kill with another counselor over drinks. But for the viewer, it is also a comforting pat on the back that we have a moral compass that will lead us through some nebulous waters.
It’s what is expected from a movie star role, but it proves acutely cathartic for such a murky context.
Indeed, everything seemed murky in 1957 when the FBI picked up the man Americans knew as Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) for spying on this country. Like Donovan, Abel lived in Brooklyn. But Abel also grew up in Russia during the rise of the Soviet Union and was here gathering information for his homeland.
Upon Abel’s arrest, Donovan is given the unceremonious task of defending the Soviet spy in a federal court that wants to send him to the electric chair. Donovan took the duty to prove the transparency of the U.S. legal system but probably pushed it further than many would have preferred, including his wife (Amy Ryan) and law partner (Alan Alda). Yet, it turned out to be fortuitous that Donovan kept the Russian spook off of death row since by the time Donovan was arguing his case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) was shot down in Russia and faced a steep prison sentence of his own.
Soon, Donovan finds that he might be the only man capable of negotiating a prisoner exchange with the aim of trading Abel for Powers, as well as Fredric Pryor (Will Rogers), the American student who found himself on the wrong side of Berlin when the famed wall came down.
As presented in Bridge of Spies, the journey of James Donovan from reluctant defense attorney to high stakes negotiator takes on the scale of an American opera. This is a quintessential western morality tale, held by the filmmakers with the same grandiose weight as John Adams defending the British soldiers purportedly behind a Boston “massacre.” The effect is all the more remarkable since Spielberg admitted at a later press conference that he hadn’t even heard of Donovan until several years ago.
The director walks this tightrope by imagining the 1950s as neither a frozen wasteland of Red Scare repression nor as a “simpler” time gone by. The filmmaker slowly (and perhaps too meticulously) recreates that sense of Cold War paranoia, complete with the requisite school scene of hiding beneath desks. But he and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski also maintain the warmth and immediacy of the present while lighting the film. Right down to those familiar and mysterious spotlights turning night skies into a stage, the atmosphere is definitively Spielbergian and thus urgently important.
The other ace in the hole is a deliberate playfulness juxtaposed with a dire landscape, which is likely a compliment to the Coen Brothers’ screenplay contributions. The writers maintain their folksy trademark wit for Donovan, especially when he gently spars with Abel while growing an unlikely sense of respect and friendship. But the script is at its best during the third act of the film in Berlin.
Matt Charman provided the first draft of screenplay, but the Coens’ biggest influence seems to be in channeling the sound of a million bureaucratic voices poised to turn a tense situation into a tragedy. As mentioned earlier, Spielberg also shows off his visual flair for recreating horrible moments from the 20th century with the construction of the Berlin Wall. But it is only after the structure is in place that the insidiousness is fully articulated with Donovan repeatedly traveling to East Berlin where the disparate and self-serving political interests of the Soviets (who have Powers) and the Soviet East German state (who have Pryor) work at cross purposes of one another.
And faced with even a CIA of mixed objectives and deadlines, Donovan enters a labyrinth fogged by unending government management that seeks on both sides to strangle any chance of cooperation. It is here that the Coens’ ability to inhabit varying absurdities sings through the dialogue, and the movie rises above its stately demeanor to become a complete spy experience.
This last taut third raises the stakes above some of the rather thick sentimentality about Donovan’s home life surrounding the movie—Amy Ryan is given nothing to do but stare with incredulity and later admiration for her husband—as well as the sense that the film can at times be too academic. Class is over by the time Donovan is looking toward Checkpoint Charlie, and Hanks has to convincingly carry audiences into the snowy edge of paranoia.
That crossroads is also where the movie’s strength lies. By returning to the Cold War, Spielberg finds a very current set of problems, beginning with how we treat those arrested as enemies. Donovan was an advocate of doing unto others as we would want done to our own, and in an age of endless detainment without trial on Cuban shores or increasingly frosting relations between U.S. and Russian administrations, the unapologetically patriotic light shined here by Spielberg and the Coen Brothers into the dark is blinding—and welcome.
This article was first published after the Bridge of Spies world premiere at New York Film Festival on Oct. 5, 2015.