When Steven Spielberg rolls up his sleeves and digs into the past to make a serious historical film like Amistad or Lincoln, loaded adjectives like “old-fashioned,” “patriotic,” and “sober” tend to get tossed around. Sometimes it feels like certain segments of the audience don’t want the great director of the baby-boom generation to grow up. That probably says more about them than it does about him. Spielberg has, of course, made other films tackling factual chapters of the past like Schindler’s List and Munich. But the reason I bring up Amistad and Lincoln in particular is that, along with his latest film Bridge of Spies, they make up what could be called his Constitution Trilogy. I realize that label may in fact make his new movie sound old-fashioned, patriotic, and sober – and it is those things – but it’s also a crackling Cold War espionage thriller that thrums with suspense and fleet precision.
Set in 1957, the height of the simmering ideological and geopolitical showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Bridge of Spies stars Tom Hanks as a New York insurance lawyer named James Donovan, who’s tasked with the unpopular assignment of defending an alleged Russian spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). According to our nation’s laws, even during the paranoia-choked atmosphere of the era, Abel is entitled to a legal defense. The American public and even the presiding judge may already presume Abel’s guilt, but Hanks (once again tapping into the Jimmy Stewart Boy Scout idealism that’s become his forte) is determined to defend him to the best of his ability. Plus, there’s something about Abel’s deadpan sense of humor and stoic integrity that Donovan reluctantly admires – even likes. He’s hellbent on saving his client from the electric chair. Who knows, Abel’s life may even be useful in the unlikely event that someday the Soviets capture an American of their own and they can be swapped.
This unlikely scenario soon becomes reality when a young American Air Force pilot named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russia while flying a classified U-2 surveillance plane and is captured and paraded in a Moscow show trial. Donovan is called into the office of CIA director Allen Dulles and informed that his duty to his country isn’t quite over yet. He’s to go on a top-secret trip to the occupied, bombed-out East Berlin and negotiate with the Russians and East Germans for a prisoner exchange.
Based on real events and a script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen (who display, yes, the same old-fashioned, patriotic, and sober fingerprints they left on their screenplay for last year’s Unbroken – though this is a much better film), Bridge of Spies is like Capra with a dash of le Carré. Hanks is in his comfort zone as Donovan, showing us a decent man grappling with history and his own civic ideals. But there’s also a rascally twinkle in his eye that shows us that Donovan is more than just a red-white-and-blue father and husband in over his head. Part of him is getting off on the cloak-and-dagger rush of it all. It’s the actor’s best performance since Saving Private Ryan. Meanwhile, Rylance, who’s still probably best known for his brilliant work on stage, is the film’s real breakout discovery. With his musical Northern English accent and bemused, ironic demeanor, he turns a story that could feel as musty as a yellowed stack of old newspapers snap to exuberant life.
There are moments in the film when Spielberg teeters on the brink of becoming a little too preachy and strident when it comes to his hero’s decency and idealism — when subtlety should trump heavy-handedness. But at 69, Spielberg is still taking chances. After all, it takes a certain kind of guts to risk being seen as old-school in Hollywood these days. B+