A powerfully humane legal drama, Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies tells the story of James Donovan, an American lawyer who, at the height of the Cold War, was asked to defend an alleged Soviet spy. Donovan’s humble professional commitment to fairness, justice, the value of hard work, and the worth of all persons takes his case much further than he ever expected, into the halls of United States’ power and beyond, into shadowy negotiations between foreign powers. This causes much fear and prejudice directed towards him, his family’s doubts and worries about the stigma of providing legal aid to an enemy spy validated in the sneers he gets when recognized in public, and by the bullets shot through their front window by some angry concerned citizen. Even the cops responding to that frightening incident wear a how-could-you snarl.
This is a story that affirms with beautiful moral clarity aspirational bedrock American values, but not the sanctimonious sort used as smarmy stand-ins for greed, intolerance, and crypto-fascism. It’s a hopeful movie with Capra-esque ideals upheld and uplifted: kindness, compassion, empathy, and the willingness to do what good you can. Late in the film the lawyer, weary from his task, confides, “It’s not what other people think. It’s what you know you did.” We see Donovan as a man who values his logic and thinking, preparation and good judgment, tenaciously following his moral compass. Who else could embody those qualities but Tom Hanks? With every passing year his screen presence embodies more easy everyman paternal gravitas, the sort that used to be found in Lewis Stone’s Judge Hardy, vintage Atticus Finch, or evening newscasters. His projecting steady moral certitude goes a long way selling this earnest material.
Of course it also helps that Spielberg is a master filmmaker whose works are almost unfailingly absorbing and well crafted yarns. Here he’s taking talky scenes of legal process and tense negotiations and making them riveting. He has a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, masters of dry dialogue and complicated plotting, and the effect is watching great voices working seamlessly together. From a draft by Matt Charman, they’ve generously provided an unrelenting tick-tock pace and fluid crackling conversations. It’s a true story told with warm humor and disarming expressions of wit and character in every exchange, a lively and reverent story that’s as entertaining as it is moving. Donovan is a character who exudes decency, and who is generally a nice guy, stubborn only in his belief that even one person can make a difference. It’s amazing how much humor and suspense can be wrung out of good old plain niceness.
Spielberg opens with a great silent cat-and-mouse espionage sequence that introduces the Soviet spy (Mark Rylance, calm, sly, meticulous, droll, unknowable) as he’s captured. From there the film quickly sets up the trial, intercutting Americans abroad who are on a path to importance in the plot later on. Complicated geopolitical terrain and historical context are brought to life with immediate vivid clarity, while characters’ dynamics are established with wordless flickers of expression and clever blocking. The sharp dialogue is nonstop, and Spielberg knows his way around a scene, moving lightly and clearly through exposition, allowing clever turns of phrase to land with pleasing snaps. The storytelling economy is breathtaking, especially as a potentially muddled everyman-turns-LeCarre plot unspools with riveting precision and perfect focus. There are scenes with layers of subterfuge, where characters we’ve never met are, through smart placement of details, instantly understood to be putting on a show for the sake of spycraft.
For spycraft is what enters the film as the CIA understandably wants to use the captured spy for their own interests, using him as leverage in some high-stakes, top-secret Cold War negotiations. A wry handler (Scott Shepherd) ends up recruiting Donovan for the task as civilian middleman for the government’s offers, the better to disavow if it all goes wrong. This creates a complicated scenario in which Donovan is more prepared to follow the letter of the law than agents eager to punish the Russians in any way they can, and through which the layman can never be sure how much truth is being told by any other person he’s talking to, even and especially suspicious Soviet and East German agents (Mikhail Gorevoy and Sebastian Koch). The air is thick with Cold War paranoia as frigid and frosty as snow-swept Berlin streets. Spielberg has once again entrusted a film’s look to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski who here captures every bit of the uncertain situation and the sturdy man at its center in fluid camera movements and gorgeous textures, bathing grey areas in cold blue and white glow from every light source.
Spielberg and crew create a sympathetic political drama, attentive to actors’ movements and expressions in relation to one another with gentle precision. (His longtime editor Michael Kahn provides sharp cuts and meaningful juxtapositions, while accommodating unshowy one-take master shots.) It thoroughly humanizes every participant. We see little home life (though what we do is drawn in great shorthand by the likes of Amy Ryan and Eve Hewson), little of the men whose lives are being potentially traded by their governments. Instead, we’re to view people as the movie tells us Donovan does: as equally valuable human lives. Take, for instance, Rylance’s caught spy, who dryly assesses his plight, sees Donovan as an admirable advocate, and in the end emerges not as a martyred other or enemy combatant, but as a man, warm, pragmatic, and doing his best. We see in the faces of every man in a suit a person who’s juggling expectations of bosses and countries, who might be convinced to do what’s best through nothing more than the right smart argument.
Like so many of Spielberg’s historical dramas, Bridge of Spies puts his skill for crowd-pleasing spectacle to use illuminating sharp complicated ideas. In this case, hard-fought optimism emerges from clear and refreshing political resonances. It’d be difficult not to think of our gridlocked national discourse while watching a movie squarely situated on a talking cure, the value of compromise, of speaking with those you hate or distrust to find mutually agreeable ways forward. (It makes a fine pairing with his last film, Lincoln, in that regard.) Donovan realizes there are reasons to find fault with life behind the Iron Curtain, seeing fleeing Germans gunned down on the wall, knowing an American POW is tortured in interrogation that’s certainly “enhanced.” But still he insists the Americans treat their prisoner well, ensures a fair trial, and follows due process every step of the way. Hanks wears this American heroism in all its exhausting, modest, rewarding weight. The film is a deeply moving vision of a man doing the right thing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.