The Cold War seems oddly old-fashioned, almost quaint, in Bridge of Spies, the chilly historical drama about the negotiated release of downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell) in exchange for convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance). Back then, espionage took the form of stolen state secrets hidden in fake coins adhered to the underside of a park bench, kids’ stuff compared to today’s cyberhack into a nation’s defense system to obtain highly classified information. Baby boomer Spielberg, however, takes a solemn approach to the subject matter, undoubtedly informed by childhood fears of mushroom clouds and nuclear fallout in a world teetering on the possibility of self-destruction. (Indeed, the film features a brief clip of one of those ridiculous duck-and-cover films that psychologically terrorized a generation of schoolchildren more than the Red Threat ever did.) Spielberg’s moral compass is Brooklyn attorney James B. Donovan, who unsuccessfully defended Abel on espionage charges and later bartered his exchange for Powers one snowy night on the Glienicke Bridge spanning two Berlins divided by a terrible wall. As the principled and compassionate Donovan, Hanks performs with the credible conviction you’ve come to expect from him. While there are no surprises in his performance, there are no disappointments either. When Donovan delivers an impassioned plea to SCOTUS on the constitutional rights of due process in the appeal of Abel’s kangaroo-court conviction, another revered actor in American cinema comes to mind. Hanks is our Jimmy Stewart, an artist who can make the complicated appear simple, merely through the force of his integrity.
The film is divided into two parts: Donovan’s dogged representation of Abel in the American judicial system in New York City, and his subsequent trip to Germany as an unauthorized agent of the United States to barter a prisoner swap in which neither side will concede the incarcerated man was acting as a spy. While the first half provides some pointed commentary on the mob mentality that pervades during times of national unease (witness the parallels to the early post-9/11 years here), the second half is ultimately more rewarding, perhaps because the stakes are higher. The frosty atmosphere (both figuratively and literally) of Berlin evokes a time and place not seen in movies since the spate of Cold War thrillers released in the Sixties. (The dark, dimly lit interiors and exteriors shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski could very well translate as the black-and-white world depicted in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.) Most memorably, the horror of the Berlin Wall will chill you to the bone. But Bridge of Spies isn’t fashioned as a thriller; at best, it’s a history lesson. For the most part, Spielberg appears content to allow the story (admittedly, a tad bit long) to do the talking, though he goes badly off-track in the sappy ending reminiscent of a Fifties sitcom’s notions of hierarchy within the American family. Given the Spielberg film canon, it was inevitable. The guy just can’t help himself.
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