In the riveting opening minutes of Bridge of Spies, U.S. agents pursue a presumed Soviet operative through the meandering tenements, parks and subway cars of New York City. Director Steven Spielberg, a man who's not shy about the fact that he can make action movies in his sleep, reminds us of his cinematic expertise immediately. No dialogue is necessary during this heart-pounding sequence, yet the anxiety and paranoia of the Cold War 50s is communicated with power and precision.
The operative isn't a sleekly outfitted double-0, either; he's Rudolf Abel, an elderly Russian national from Ireland (played by renowned stage actor Mark Rylance, who will also play the title role in Spielberg's "BFG," due out next year). He is a quiet, dutiful smoker of cigarettes and painter of portraits, and once he's apprehended by the FBI, he becomes the most hated man in America. Bridge of Spies, which opens in wide release Friday, is the story of Abel's legal representation, and American attempts to exchange him for one of its own, an Air Force pilot captured in enemy territory.
At the center of the movie is insurance attorney and family man James Donovan (Tom Hanks, who else?). He's conscripted into representing Abel -- it's his civil duty, says his firm's managing partner (Alan Alda) -- and such is Donovan's respect for and devotion to the American legal system that he takes the job, much to the consternation of his goodly wife Mary (Amy Ryan, rocking her 50s housewife do to the nines) and confusion of his children.
As he represents Abel, though, Donovan cannot help but grow to respect him. He's an enemy of course, but a courageous one, unwilling to cooperate with his American captors. Among Donovan's many legal and moral arguments in the film is that the very same qualities Abel embodies would be celebrated in American spies abroad. We, as a democracy in general and a criminal justice system in particular, ought to treat this Russian agent with the dignity that we'd want for our boys.
Donovan manages to avoid the death penalty for Abel. And when a young, handsome pilot named Frank Powers is brought down on a top-secret intel-gathering mission in Soviet airspace, Donovan is called on once again, this time to negotiate an urgent transfer in hairy East Berlin. The thorny political relations mean that neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R want to be seen at the same table, so a neutral party is required. But things get complicated when an American grad student is captured by the East Germans -- literally as the Berlin Wall is being erected -- and Donovan, against strict orders from his CIA chaperones, attempts to exchange Abel for both the soldier and the student.
The movie is by turns poignant and gripping, and, like a lot of vintage Spielberg, testifies to immensely detailed storyboarding. The shots are colorized and manicured down to the direction of the blowing cigarette smoke. And Hanks, as Donovan, is your classic American everyman-hero. When he returns from East Germany and collapses on his bed -- desiring neither accolades nor sympathy for the dangers he faced while making history -- one cannot help but be bestirred.
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