Lawrence Toppman

Spielberg’s honorable ‘Bridge of Spies’ spans the Cold War

In “Bridge of Spies,” Tom Hanks stars as a U.S. attorney on a perilous mission to East Berlin in 1962.
In “Bridge of Spies,” Tom Hanks stars as a U.S. attorney on a perilous mission to East Berlin in 1962. Walt Disney Pictures

Steven Spielberg has directed 28 feature films over a 44-year career. Of that total, exactly three – “Sugarland Express,” “Jaws” and “The Terminal” – are set during his own lifetime under realistic conditions.

He’s most comfortable in fantasy worlds, where he can divert or frighten us with dinosaurs or aliens or robots, and in the past, where moral quandaries have been cleared up and history has passed verdicts on the participants. The results are often cogent but rarely urgent.

He returns to the historical category in “Bridge of Spies,” a movie about the Cold War swap of Soviet agent Rudolf Abel for U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, whose spy plane was shot down over Soviet territory.

Spielberg shows his usual professionalism and more moral ambiguity than usual, abetted by a screenplay by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers. Yet it’s hard to get worked up when we know the outcome – or, even if we don’t, may not feel much is at stake. And the Cold War atmosphere, sparingly but intelligently evoked, keeps this film from becoming a metaphor for current U.S.-Russian relations.

We spend most of the time in the presence of James Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan was general counsel for the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner of the CIA) during World War II and a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazis. Our government assumes that, if he defends Abel (Mark Rylance) against charges of spying, the U.S. justice system will be seen to be fair to the accused spy.

Abel gets sent to prison but serves only four years before Powers’ plane goes down. In 1962, with the recently built Berlin Wall dividing that city, Donovan goes to East Berlin. He’s there to supervise a swap and try to bring back an economics student, who found himself on the wrong side of the wall and was accused of espionage by East German police.

There’s a certain comfort level to Spielberg films. We know cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who grew up in Poland during the Cold War, will imbue America with warm brown hues and make East Germany gray and moribund. We know Michael Kahn, who has edited Spielberg’s movies for 38 years, will help the director set an unhurried pace that never seems too slow. We expect a score by John Williams, who hasn’t missed a Spielberg film in 30 years, but Thomas Newman supplies a pallid copy of his style.

At the same time, we get the less comfortable suggestion that neither side behaves honorably. An East German lawyer (Sebastian Koch) tries to hoodwink Donovan and has him briefly put in jail, because the U.S. government won’t acknowledge the legitimacy of his country. A Soviet KGB agent pretends to be a powerless embassy official.

On our side, the judge trying Abel’s case refuses to hear an obvious defense – a warrantless search isn’t legal – and pleasantly tells Donovan he has no hope of winning. We cut from people rising in the rigged courtroom to students standing in elementary school to say the Pledge of Allegiance; it’s a clunky move, but Spielberg so rarely aims for irony that we have to applaud.

Hanks gives one of his least showy and most credible performances. He has worked with Spielberg four times as an actor and more often as a producer, and he again embodies a hard-working, honorable guy with a subdued sense of humor. Rylance matches him, creating a nuanced portrait with the tiniest of gestures and the softest of inflections.

In the end, we’re meant to admire not a nation or a political system but these two characters. They remain steadfast to personal codes of honor and the best interests of their countries – the real Abel never revealed anything to inquisitors – and would have been friends under other circumstances. On a nonpolitical level, this story is indeed a bridge between two spies.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Bridge of Spies

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Sebastian Koch, Amy Ryan.

Director: Steven Spielberg.

Writers: Matt Charman, Ethan and Joel Coen.

Length: 135 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (some violence and brief strong language).