Director Steven Spielberg is the conscience of American film-makers, delving into the dark places of our history - the morally shaky ground of policymaking in a country that prides itself on its belief in upholding the principles of the U.S.Constitution. In his latest film, BRIDGE OF SPIES, he pokes a stick into the headlines of Cold War events - the 1960 U-2 Spy plane incident, in order to shed air and light into the shadowy reaches of official myth-making. Aware that this can be done most powerfully through precise direction, detailed sets, soaring soundtracks, and cinematography that echoes the dreary mood of the times - bright sunshine recedes behind the shadows of deception. The audience is always entertained, despite the subject matter’s depiction of the murkiness of ethics and morality. Like the great illustrator Norman Rockwell - we are seduced by an “apple pie” ethos, except there are worms wriggling around in the crust.
Tom Hanks is perfectly cast - an actor who I cannot remember ever playing a “bad” guy - as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer conscripted by the CIA in 1957 during the height of the Cold War hysteria to defend the arrested Soviet mole, Rudolf Abel, (an academy award winning performance by Mark Rylance,) and participate in a US government programmed “kangaroo-court” trial. Except James Donovan believes in the right of an individual to the best defense as the bedrock of our democracy, not willing to compromise his deeply held integrity.
BRIDGE OF SPIES begins with a panning of a dreary Brooklyn street with the Manhattan Bridge in the background looming over the landscape, the camera eventually lands upstairs in a tenement building where Mark Rylance/Rudolf Abel is looking at himself in a mirror painting a quite good traditional self-portrait. This double view is our introduction to the personality of a seemingly Walter Mitty-like individual, his physiognomy imprinted with a haunting and magnetic expressiveness, conveying adversity and conviction. Rylance's sympathetic portrayal of Abel is seductive and thrilling; this spy is a mystery and remains so.
Tom Hanks/James Donovan - a reincarnation of Jimmy Stewart (thicker in physique) lives a 1950’s dream life in suburbia; three children and a clueless stay-at-home wife and mother (played by Amy Ryan in a thankless part.) Women are just accessories in this movie - indicative of how they were considered at the time. Thank goodness for the Feminist Movement 20 years later! Getting involved with cloak and dagger politics does not change Donovan - he is incorruptible and strongly rooted to the ideals of American values as put forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
At the same time as the Abel trial - America is preparing to send a U-2 spy plane equipped with surveillance equipment over Soviet territory and the Central Intelligence Agency recruits a young pilot Francis Gary Powers (a bland, handsome Austin Stowell) to complete the reconnaissance mission. In 1960, the operation is implemented and shortly thereafter the U-2 spy plane is shot down by a Soviet surface-to-air missile and Powers parachutes unto Russian soil still alive and is captured and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment and hard labor. A politically heated issue and an embarrassment for the Eisenhower administration - the incident was vigorously denied by the USA and a cover-up was attempted, but the covert military maneuver was ultimately exposed.
Attempts are made to return Gary Francis Power to the USA in order to interrogate him about how much classified information he revealed to the Soviets. The authorities turn again to Attorney James Donovan to negotiate the exchange of spies on Glienicker Bridge in East Germany - Rudolf Abel for Gary Francis Powers; the tension and drama of BRIDGE OF SPIES begins against the backdrop of the Wall being erected in East Berlin - a bleak city in contrast to its counterpart in the Western sector.
Pragmatic political behavior by officials in the KGB, CIA and FBI are all stick figures in the chess game of diplomacy and Tom Hanks deftly navigates his way through the labyrinth of innuendo and deceit. Espionage, duplicity, betrayal are at the heart of this film. What makes it palatable is the humanity of both Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance’s characters who bond with mutual respect, despite their opposing ideological viewpoints. Director Spielberg can be sentimental, but is able to tunnel through the sappiness with humor and affection. He really likes his two leading men and so do we.