Who doesn’t like to cozy up to an old-school spy thriller that knows how to build tension and tighten it? Bridge of Spies may be a snooze to the ADD crowd allergic to historical drama, but it’s dished out by experts. That’s director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Hanks, working from a Matt Charman script polished by the Coen brothers, no less. Their topic is the pivotal moment in the Cold War when an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 and the U.S. had to negotiate the release of its captured pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). The way to do it, according to lawyer James B. Donovan (Hanks), is to exchange Powers for Col. Rudolf Abel (the exceptional Mark Rylance), a British-born Russian spy working undercover in Brooklyn until the FBI jailed him on conspiracy charges in 1957. His capture, excitingly staged by Spielberg, starts the movie on a high.
Then the hard sell kicks in. Take the insistent score by Thomas Newman, filling in for Spielberg regular John Williams. Even the trailer seems to bellow: “In the shadow of war/One Man showed the world/What we stand for.”
Since that One Man is played by Hanks, an actor with an estimable gift for understatement (see Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan), the trumpets are unnecessary. Donovan is an insurance lawyer, with a wife (Amy Ryan) and kids at home. When his boss (Alan Alda) volunteers him to represent Abel, Donovan is suddenly reviled as the guy who’s trying to free a traitor. Hanks expresses Donovan’s quiet heroism with admirable restraint. It’s the script that pushes it, with Abel calling him “the standing man” who gets back up to do right when he’s knocked down.
Bridge of Spies works best in the gray areas, when Donovan sees Abel and Powers as patriots doing the bidding of their countries. It resonates when Spielberg gives us action that defines character, as in Donovan’s trip to Berlin, where conspiracies damn near kill him. During the climactic prisoner exchange on the Glienicke Bridge, there are moments when we can’t tell good from bad, and standard spy stuff becomes a potent provocation.