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Let's Make a Deal, Cold War Style

20th Century Fox
 141 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Steven Spielberg 
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance
Bridge of Spies

Some director/actor combinations, like John Ford and John Wayne or Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro, manage to bring out the best in each other. After watching Bridge of Spies, I realized that we can add to that list of symbiotic director/actor pairings the duo of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Certainly, both of these talented artists have done great things on their own, but their collaborations have lifted two rather ordinary projects, The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can, and produced one film masterpiece, Saving Private Ryan. Now, in Bridge of Spies, the pair have done their best work this century.


Bridge of Spies is an incredible true story about a little known American hero, James Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer whose life became intertwined with that of an infamous Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). After the FBI arrests Abel on espionage charges, the New York Bar Association and his senior partner (Alan Alda) approach Donovan and ask him to represent Abel. It’s the height of the Cold War, and after the arrest of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg a few years earlier, Americans are paranoid about Soviet agents and want Abel’s head. The legal powers that be don’t want Abel acquitted; they just want Donovan to put on enough of a defense so that they can show the rest of the world that the U.S. Constitution’s safeguards apply even to the worst of the worst. 


Donovan, however, takes his job seriously. There’s no real question of Abel’s guilt, so he challenges the constitutionality of Abel’s search and arrest. Even after Abel is convicted, he takes the spy’s case to the Supreme Court, losing a narrow decision. In so doing, he becomes almost as hated with the general public as Abel. More importantly, he is able to convince the sentencing judge not to execute Abel because the United States might need him at some future date as a bargaining chip to free a captured American agent.


That day comes a couple of years later, when Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a pilot of a U-2 spy plane, is shot down over the Soviet Union and convicted of espionage himself after an elaborate show trial. Concerned that Powers might reveal information about ongoing U-2 flights, the CIA approaches Donovan and asks him to negotiate an exchange of Abel for Powers, one that can’t go through official government channels. The negotiations are to take place in East Berlin, behind the newly constructed Berlin Wall, and Donovan realizes just how dangerous his mission might be, but he agrees to do try.


By the time he arrives in Berlin, however, another complication arises. An American student has been caught in East Berlin and is being held as a spy by East German authorities. Donovan asks the CIA about including the student as part of the swap but is told to forget about it, since Powers is the key. Nevertheless, Donovan goes ahead, even if it means far more complicated negotiations, since the student is being held by East German authorities, and that country is insistent upon being taken seriously as an independent country by the Soviet Union. 


Bridge of Spies is a most unusual type of espionage film, one that has relatively little action, but a lot of back-and-forth dialogue. Hanks is at his low-key best as Donovan, as he presents logical arguments to whomever he is dealing with, whether Soviet or East German bureaucrats, CIA middlemen, or a federal judge. The script was punched up by the Coen Brothers, who actually make this byplay entertaining. Through all of it, though, Hanks convinces the audience that he isn’t a fast talking huckster but that he really has the knack of demonstrating that it’s in the other party’s best interest to get him what he wants. For the Russians, that means the ability to get Abel back before he talks, and for the East Germans, it’s their ability to get a seat at the bargaining table alongside their Soviet counterparts.


What shines through most in Hanks’s performance aren’t the speeches he makes. Instead, it’s his quiet James Stewart-like dignity with which he delivers them. He’s a man who believes in the United States, decency, and the Constitution and allows those beliefs to govern his actions. Hanks’s low-key performance helps keep Spielberg’s occasional tendency of going overboard with emotional moments in check, up until the very end of the movie.


While the supporting cast is solid in general, Mark Rylance is outstanding. He has a career role here as the quiet, observant Abel, a consummate professional with a deadpan sense of humor (when given options, he always replies “would it help”). He recongnizes Donovan as a kindred spirit, and a most unusual sort of frienship blossoms. Spielberg gets a chance to show Abel’s skill in the lengthy opening sequence, which depicts the spy’s capture, in which he is able to conceal and destroy incriminating evidence right under the noses of his FBI captors.


That sequence is one of only three action sequences in Bridge of Spies, all of which show Spielberg at his best. The only traditional action scene depicts the downing of the U-2 plane, in which mechanical malfunctions prevent Powers from blowing the plane, and himself, up as ordered. It’s a frantic but easy-to-follow few minutes of footage. The other sequence depicts the capture of the student at the rapidly being built Berlin Wall. This is the only movie I can recall that shows the wall being built and how the exit path to West Berlin was slowly, inexorably cut off, turning a typical construction  project into something far more sinister.


Spielberg takes every opportunity to compare and contrast life in the West with life behind the Iron Curtain, including a brief glimpse at Powers’ show trial. The biggest contrast results from Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, showing East Berlin in a cold blue light in virtually every scene, bringing back memories of the classic Richard Burton film, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. While Bridge of Spies is a patriotic movie in general, though, viewers can’t help but notice the comparisons Spielberg draws between the Cold War anti-communist paranoia that led many to justify suspending the Constiution to deal with the “Red menace” and today’s similar anti-terrorist fervor.


Steven Spielberg has managed to bring an era that’s seemingly ancient history for many Americans to life and create one of the most gripping espionage films in years despite spending the last half of the film dwelling on mundane bureaucratic negotiations. He also has the perfect actor, Tom Hanks, giving a perfect portrayal of his hero. Every time a new Spielberg film comes out, critics wonder what happened to the “old Spielberg.” Bridge of Spies shows that the master hasn’t lost his touch. 

Read other reviews of  Bridge of Spies:


Bridge of Spies (2015) on IMDb