The beginning of Bridge of Spies doesn't feature a U2 spy plane or a map-driven tutorial on post-World War II relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. It does not flash to Berlin and show a time lapse of the erection of the Wall between East and West. Instead it opens with Tom Hanks, playing insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, going back and forth with his opposing counsel about the details of an automobile accident. They are debating the finer points of the case over drinks. Hanks, charming as ever, revels in jurisprudence. And we, the viewers, are meant to be grounded. Donovan is a good lawyer, but, just as importantly, an ordinary American involved in an extraordinary bit of history.
We're meant to marvel at what he does from every moment forward. More subconsciously, it is a callback to the ordinary men doing extraordinary things in director Steven Spielberg's past works -- Hanks' character in Saving Private Ryan, Oskar Schindler, Matthew McCounaghey's Roger Sherman Baldwin in Amistad, Eric Bana's Avner in Munich, and so on.
It's too bad that this turns out to be more of a cheap trick instead of a sign that Spielberg has dug up another remarkable bit of history and turned it in to cinematic gold. That's not to say that the history behind Bridge of Spies isn't remarkable. Hanks' character represented convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, played in the film by Mark Rylance, helping him avoid the death penalty. He then traveled to Berlin just as relations between the East and West really began to break down and negotiated the swap of Abel for Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U2 spy plane crashed in the U.S.S.R., and Frederic Pryor, an American grad student jailed as a spy by the East Germans.
Hanks, as you would expect, brings a folksy, man-of-the-people appeal to Donovan. He is impossible to dislike and easy to root for. He manages this despite being one of the biggest movie stars in the world, and it’s of critical importance that he seem small and ordinary as he traipses around wintery East Berlin negotiating with East German officials desperate to establish their country’s legitimacy and his Soviet counterpart Ivan Schischkin, played by Peter Lorre lookalike Mikhail Gorevoy.
Donovan is also stubbornly principled. He doesn’t give up on his defense of Abel through multiple appeals, despite the overwhelming evidence against him and the security fears of the early Cold War. And he refuses to agree to any swap that doesn’t bring both Powers and Pryor home, despite pressure from the U.S. intelligence community to focus solely on Powers. Abel, at Donovan’s side throughout the entire saga, in turn becomes his sole unlikely peer. He never gives up any information to the U.S. government in exchange for leniency. He is principled in his own way, and as a result he earns the grudging respect and then fragile friendship of Donovan.
Bridge of Spies is at its best when Donovan and Abel are alone on screen — Hanks’ irresistible aw-shucksiness pairing wonderfully with the dry wit and gallows humor of Rylance’s character. But when Hanks is pretty much anywhere else, the film teeters over the brink in to pedanticism. There is too much telling and not enough showing — Donovan takes every chance to grandstand about what is right, about what characteristics truly separate us from the Reds.
It’s a good point Spielberg and the writing team of Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen are making — one that has present-day applications with the Guantanamo Bay prison still open. But stated so often and so explicitly it robs from the intrigue that might have made this a better film. The tense geopolitical history ends up diminished, which is too bad because the end of the Cold War and fall of the Berlin Wall is now distant enough that it feels worth revisiting.
Bridge of Spies is a fine film. It is plodding and far too direct (had Hanks broken the fourth wall I wouldn’t have been too surprised), but it is never unpleasant. The thing is we know Spielberg is capable of so much more. Just look at all of his other classic historical dramas. No, really, do that instead of heading to the cineplex for his newest one. You can wait for Bridge of Spies to hit HBO.