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In Brooklyn, a painter named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) bides his time. He is a middle-aged man with a hangdog look, and he hides behind horn-rimmed glasses. He doesn’t say much, at least not verbally. But his face suggests something deeper, something like regret. He lives in solitude, and is working on a self-portrait. It’s a handsome work, actually; dignified and expressive. He gets a call.
Abel says nothing, and looks blank, but he’s focused. Right after the call he leaves the apartment and hops on a train. It’s quickly revealed, though, that he’s quite popular. G-men are following him in a pack, sloppily. The sly Abel manages to walk past his followers, and is found a short time later in the park, painting a bridge. Could he be a victim, or a mark on a random list? Ah, there’s a coin under his bench, magnetized. The coin contains documents of unknown purpose, but it’s spy stuff alright. Moments later Abel is apprehended, and this sets in motion a series of events that led to the real-life trade of Abel for downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was held in captivity by the Soviets during the Cold War.
Bridge of Spies is the true story of the deal behind the Abel-Powers exchange and the insurance lawyer who carefully constructed the trade-off, James Donovan (Tom Hanks, never more like Jimmy Stewart). Unable to work on behalf of the US government because of international tensions, Donovan races dauntlessly to navigate closed door deals, supremely shifty characters, and the big-mouthed moral fortitudes of people in power when emboldened by heated political rhetoric. Donovan’s a straight shooter in a crooked, shady time.
Knowing the trade is the inevitable conclusion, the film shrewdly considers it against the difficulty of due process and the startling real-life stakes of the true story. There’s no big courtroom scene, no subtitles to excessively clue viewers in, and there are so few clichés that it’s a minor miracle this film gets to exist in the age of remakes and biopics. This is a simple, powerful statement about human decency. Spies, lawyers, politicians, families are all still people, with fears and dreams and rights.
In its unexpected way, Bridge of Spies is quite the patient and special piece of work. Abel’s not a stereotype; he’s a man with rights. Donovan’s weapons are his words and his intellect. And spies, well, they’re all people acting with paranoia, even hysteria. Call it old-fashioned, call it conservative, call it a post-modern Capra film, but Bridge of Spies is the kind of film where the protagonist can evenly state that “every person matters,” and you can embrace its optimism. From Steven Spielberg, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Hanks comes a discreet, unshowy, and thoughtful film.
Spies also manages to nab non-obvious skills from the biggies involved. Spielberg, Mr. Jaws and Saving Private Ryan, directs with a humanism and thoughtfulness that’s been defining much of his recent work. He exercises muted craftsmanship, with great photography (courtesy of the nimble, natural Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s regular), expertly applied tension, and more emphasis on humanity than on visual splendor. Joel and Ethan Coen, along with screenwriter Matt Charman, chart the story with observant intrigue, cleverly constructed dialogue, and more than one Coen-esque blowhard.
Watching Hanks’ Donovan battle with one odd bureaucrat and then another becomes a game of chipping away at walls, with small but meaningful rewards. Sure, Donovan’s a charmer, but rarely has Hanks seemed this tense or fragile. He embodies Donovan as a plain, decent guy, and couldn’t be better suited for the part. Donovan keeps the story uncluttered and mobile; he learns things and figures out situations along with the audience. When Donovan meets Abel’s brash family at a meeting in Berlin, it’s a confusing cluster of screaming and European melodrama. Donovan was promised a lawyer, not a family circus. Donovan’s confusion gives way to disbelief, then willingness to figure this whole thing out, and Hanks constantly finds ways to understand the labyrinthine system. Donovan speaks, but listens, too; he has a reassuring way about him. Donovan sees Abel from a humanist view, and has a great lawyer’s objective mind, a passion for integrity. His mission is to see the best possible outcome, which will hopefully be the right and just one.
Bridge of Spies occupies a peculiar place as the kind of adult-oriented fare that was better able to compete commercially in the ‘90s. Here is a modest, mid-budget legal, political, and historical chestnut, all buzzwords that make studios flail when considering the marketing. There are no sexy actors, few grand-standing moments, and one money shot for trailers that isn’t just the handsome, practical photography of the film. Almost sounds bygone, doesn’t it?