“Bridge of Spies” Is a Fine Historical Thriller That Meditates on American Values (i.e., It’s a Spielberg Film)

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

This movie had somehow slipped under my radar before its release. I didn’t even realize it was a new Steven Spielberg film. Perhaps its terribly generic poster pushed my thoughts towards dismissal. That would have been a shame, as Bridge of Spies, poster notwithstanding, is quite a fine espionage thriller. If it gets a bit unfocused in its final act, that doesn’t take away from the solid filmmaking of the first two thirds. What’s particularly refreshing about the way Spielberg and his screenwriters (two of whom are Ethan and Joel Coen!) present the material is that the government spies at work within the story are anything but Bondian. Instead, it’s an insurance lawyer who saves the day. The film is also a wonderful meditation on the meaning of ostensible American values: what good is liberty and justice if we ignore them when times get tough?

The film opens with a big unknown. A man looks in the mirror, painting his self-portrait. At first, even though a title card had just announced that this was a movie about the Cold War, I thought it might be Norman Rockwell, but when the phone rang and he ran out without a word, jumping into a New York subway car, I thought otherwise. This mystery man is played by Mark Rylance (Angels & Insects), and though he has done more British TV and stage work than Hollywood films, he is an extraordinary presence in front of the camera. Which is good, because it turns out that he is a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, and so needs all of the sympathy that a great actor can give him. In a bit that recalls the great 1953 communist-paranoia thriller Pickup on South Street, Abel is pursued by the FBI on that subway, and then home, where he has taken a secret bit of possibly classified information he surreptitiously picked up on his journey. The G-men bust in, grab him, and that’s the end of it.

Or not. We then meet James B. Donovan – played by Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) with his usual folksy charm – a star insurance lawyer whose firm has been asked by the U.S. government to defend Abel, to show the rest of the world that the Americans offer justice even to those who would destroy us. Donovan gets the short straw, and like a good boy scout is soon annoying those very forces that wanted him to put on a good show. To him, that means offering the best defense possible. To his superiors, that means doing the bare minimum. We sense a showdown.

Meanwhile, Spielberg starts cutting back and forth between scenes of Donovan and Abel and scenes of Francis Gary Powers – stoically played by Austin Stowell (Miles Teller’s drum rival in Whiplash) – as he is first selected, and then trained, to fly a high-altitude spy plane over the Soviet Union. As history tells us (kind of hard to ignore it), he is shot down on his first mission and taken captive, and soon we have parallel captured-spy scenarios. Before long, we find ourselves in East Berlin, where a new wall is going up, as Donovan – reviled at home for defending a “Russkie” but now freelancing for the CIA – tries to negotiate a prisoner exchange. As a cloak and dagger procedural, it’s fascinating stuff, until it all gets just a little too long.

No matter the length, though, this is good storytelling. The terrific actress Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) may be relegated to the role of “the wife” – shame, Hollywood, shame! – and there may be nary a face of color in sight – shame, Hollywood, shame! – but otherwise this is a very fine historical thriller that reminds us of our best moments as a country. A good lesson for the upcoming election year!

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