How can a man stand up for the enemy and still be considered a patriot?
That’s the central question of Steven Spielberg’s new Cold War drama Bridge of Spies, which just released its first trailer, and it was a question hurled at real-life attorney James B. Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) when he represented the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in 1957.
Donovan lost that case, which threatened to destroy his reputation with the public, but what Donovan was defending was the ideal that everyone deserves a legal defense — an argument about how we detain and prosecute attacks on our country that endures from the Cold War to today’s War on Terror.
Later, Donovan would be involved in another effort to release Abel from captivity, but again, what may sound like aid to a enemy was actually a mission on behalf of the American government. Donovan was enlisted to use Abel as a bargaining chip to reclaim one of our own: Francis Gary Powers, a U.S. pilot shot down over Soviet airspace in 1960 while flying a U-2 spy plane.
Although the story is based on tense, real-life negotiations, the tone of the trailer amps up the danger as Donovan ventures behind the Berlin Wall to a place where the right to a vigorous defense apparently amounts to holding your hands over your face while being shot from a guard tower.
The stoic Russian agent Abel is played by Mark Rylance, who stars as Thomas Cromwell on BBC’s Wolf Hall but is best known for his theater work, having won three Tony Awards in 2014 for Twelfth Night, in 2011 for Jerusalem, and 2008 for Boeing Boeing. (He must have made a good impression on Spielberg, who also cast him as the Big, Friendly Giant in his upcoming Roald Dahl adaption The BFG.)
The impact of all this on Donovan’s personal life is being shouldered by Amy Ryan as his wife, Mary, who is responsible for protecting their family while her husband is engaged in verbal combat over lofty democratic ideals — which may be vulnerable in their own way, but don’t have to worry about bullets being shot through the living room window in the middle of the night. Alan Alda co-stars as Thomas Watters, another lawyer at Donovan’s firm, although we can’t tell from the trailer just where he stands on his partner’s cloak-and-dagger activities.
Bridge of Spies opens on Oct. 16.