October has been a revelatory month of filmmaking. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen master classes in moviemaking from the likes of Ridley Scott (“The Martian”) and Robert Zemeckis (“The Walk”). This week Steven Spielberg has made it three for three with his new drama “Bridge of Spies.” It’s an engaging look at the Cold War and one man with the unenviable task of defending and later bargaining for the life o a Soviet spy.
James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a no-nonsense, quick-witted insurance lawyer in Brooklyn. He’s got a good job, a loving family and a firm grasp on his place in the world. Things take on a layer of complexity when he’s approached by the State Bar Association about defending a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). It’s the kind of job the word “thankless” was created for. The defense for a suspected spy is a dog and pony show: Guilt is assumed, retribution will be swift. However, the higher-ups want it to look like Abel has been afforded a suitable defense.
Donovan meets with the soft-spoken Abel, who shows no interest in cooperating with the CIA. Our friends in the Central Intelligence Agency believe Abel has relevant information that could help them in their neverending conflict with the USSR. Unfortunately, Donovan has no interest in doing anything but serving his client to the best of his ability. He believes in fairness, the burden of proof and the US Constitution. Once tasked with defending Abel, he takes every step to make sure his client is protected.
The moral conflict is an interesting one: How does someone defend a sworn enemy, someone who serves a power who seeks the decimation of our way of life? Donovan becomes a pariah, seen as no better than the man he defends. His principles put his family and his own life in danger. This story alone could have made for an interesting two-hour drama, but things take an even more complex turn when Donovan is asked to arrange a swap for Abel and an American pilot captured by the Soviet Union.
Donovan goes to Berlin and witnesses firsthand a nation in turmoil. The aftermath of the second World War and the Soviet invasion split the country right down the middle. To make things more difficult, Donovan has to arrange the trade in secret. America and the Soviet Union would never publicly acknowledge prisoner negotiations, so Donovan has to play a chess game with a number of different characters to try and make an impossible deal.
“Bridge of Spies” is Spielberg’s best film since “Catch Me If You Can” (which I consider Spielberg’s best movie). An extremely watchable movie, it captures the heightened tension of the Cold War and the battle to uphold principles even when looking the enemy in the eye. Tom Hanks is so damn good here. Like so many of his roles, he plays the likable everyman with his moral compass pointing in the right direction. There’s a monologue he delivers early on in the movie to a CIA agent trying to get the inside track on his client, speaking about “what makes us both American.” It’s the kind of rabble-rousing speech that deserves flags waving and Francis Scott Key music blaring in the background. But Hanks delivers it with a quiet dignity and a smirk on his face, amused by the suited gentleman who sits across from him and talks about principles as if they are nothing more than words.
Usually, Spielberg isn’t this restrained. In most films, he hammers audiences over the head with symbolism and imagery to make sure everyone in the theater gets the point. Not here. This is a very subdued, very metered movie. It’s a small story with big implications—a wonderful snapshot of the duck-and-cover era in America and our collective obsession with the threat of nuclear armageddon. Even with these large themes, “Bridge of Spies” never feels like something grand. It’s small, focused and never loses sight of its earnest goals. “Bridge of Spies” feels like Spielberg is still growing as a filmmaker. That is one hell of a surprise.