In Philadelphia, Tom Hanks played a wrongfully terminated man who seeks legal help from the only attorney who will take his case. In Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, Hanks finds himself in a somewhat similar situation, except this time he plays the attorney who takes on an impossible case. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer tasked with representing an accused Soviet intelligence officer named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). America knows what Abel has done and the judge is ready to send him to the electric chair regardless of what the defense argues. Nevertheless, Donovan commits himself to getting his client the fair trial he’s entitled to.
This fascinating true story isn’t about a lawyer getting an innocent man off. As a matter of fact, Rudolf is 100% guilty of being a spy and even Donovan can see this. At the same, though, it’s not like America wasn’t also committing espionage on Russian soil. Donovan points out to the judge that an American spy could easily get captured one day. If that were to happen, it’d be a good idea to keep Abel alive as insurance. Thus, it’s considered something of a victory when Abel is convicted to thirty years in prison rather than to death.
At first, many view Donovan as a traitor to his country. One unknown assailant even fires shots at his house and endangers his family. Eventually, however, an American pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is taken prisoner by the Soviet Union. The CIA enlists Donovan to negotiate trading Abel for Powers. Donovan thus acts as a bridge between spies, determined to see that each man gains their freedom.
Hanks delivers yet another multi-layered performance as a character Jimmy Stewart probably would’ve played decades ago. He’s literally given several balls to juggle as Donovan, whose job only becomes more complicated when an American student studying abroad is also taken captive. No matter what new obstacles are thrown Donovan’s way, however, he won’t rest until justice is served on all sides. Hanks plays every facet of Donovan flawlessly, from the stern lawman, to the loving family man, to the moral everyman.
Rylance is equally impressive as Rudolf Abel. In an understated performance, Rylance manages to get a lot of emotion across as a man who’s seemingly given up. From the second he’s arrested, Abel believes that his life is over and wishes to spend the remainder of his days painting. Bridge of Spies might have been an even more compelling picture if we spent just a little more time with Abel, as well as the Americans who were taken prisoner. Then again, the filmmakers mainly set out to tell James B. Donovan’s story and they tell it exceptionally.
We’ve seen movies about the Cold War before. What’s so absorbing about Bridge of Spies, though, is how screenwriters Matt Charman and the Coen brothers observe matters from a middle-of-the-road perspective. In a time of war, it was easy for America and Russia to villainize each other, but both countries really took similar actions and suffered from the same hardships. The only way to achieve peace of any kind was for people like Donovan to stand up and bring balance. Further enforced by strong editing, sweeping cinematography, an elegant score, and Spielberg’s unmatched eye for direction, Bridge of Spies is a rousing motion picture.