Steven Spielberg's true-story Cold War procedural Bridge of Spies has a wintry chill. The colors are gray and green, the skin tones pale as frozen fish, and the film stock fuzzed and snowy. Our protagonist, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), spends half the movie waylaid by a cold and takes his important meetings huddled over Scotch, as if for warmth. It's easy to feel how the U.S. and Russia thought this permafrost would last forever.
The story begins in 1957, the year Donovan was drafted to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) on three counts of thermonuclear espionage. Abel, a sallow man with a tight frown and lilting eyebrows, was never going to be acquitted. Before the trial even starts, Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) bellows, "This man has to have a capable defense, but let's not kid each other." With his client's guilt already decided, Donovan earns his pay merely by yanking Abel from the electric chair. Most people in America, the government included, would have preferred that he hadn't.
But Donovan, a former insurance litigator, thinks Abel is valuable collateral. In the second act of the film — set five years later, in 1962, as East Germany is erecting the Berlin Wall — Donovan has a chance to prove it, by attempting to trade Abel to the Russians in exchange for Yankee pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), captured on a mission to photograph Soviet territory from a high-flying U-2 surveillance plane.
Spielberg elbows us with the hypocrisy: We'd like our man back unharmed even though we screamed to lynch theirs. And both captives face the same peril. Even if they've stayed loyal and kept their lips shut — and even if they somehow make it back home — their own people might assume they'd squealed.
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski lights the actors' profiles with a harsh white glare so they appear two-faced. In a hat tip to the look of The Third Man, the shiny-wet street scenes are drained of pigment until they could pass for black-and-white. (Plus, every man east of the Atlantic is a blond with a Peter Lorre purr.) Yet rather than examine the shifting loyalties of film noir, Spielberg purposefully drains the plot of intrigue. It's clear that Abel is guilty from the first scene, in which he slices open a hollow nickel to extract a code. We're never in doubt where anyone stands. With the uses and themes established, Bridge of Spies is free to ask a more modern question: Are the good guys that much better than the bad?
Standing on the Glienicke Bridge of the title, Donovan is alarmed to spot German snipers on the other end. His CIA handler shrugs: Our side has them too. Draw a line bisecting the Eastern Bloc from the West, and they could be mirror images: two gun nests, two prisoners, and two sides that stoke fear in their people by calling each other the enemy. And when Donovan
Flop or not, the American people believed that Abel might have brought them to the brink of apocalypse. (Spielberg includes a wry scene in which Donovan's alarmist elementary-school son lectures him on duck-and-cover.) In 1960, three years after Donovan's headline-making defense of Abel made him the
Most espionage thrillers send in James Bonds to save the day. Bridge of Spies sidelines the glamorous heroes — the spies and soldiers who spend the movie in cells — to celebrate the valor of ordinary men. You can hear the Coen Brothers, who co-wrote the script with Matt Charman, when Donovan's Russian counterpart sighs, "We little men just do our jobs."
Appropriately, even at nearly two and a half hours, Bridge of Spies feels like a little film. It's long and stretched thin, ditching subplots like Donovan's daughter's dalliance with his aide to spend more time sipping booze in immaculate period sets. What Spielberg seems to want most from this respectable
Bridge of Spies
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, and Billy Magnussen. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Matt Charman, Ethan