Review: ‘Bridge of Spies’ is a taut, smart thriller

Tom Long
The Detroit News

A sturdy, perfectly acted, crowd-pleasing period piece, Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” also offers a dark then hopeful glimpse of the American conscience, which can bend to the moment but has a tendency to eventually straighten itself out.

That conscience is carried forward in the person of Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks), a successful but not particularly notable New York City lawyer in 1960, at the height of the Cold War between Russia and the United States. Hanks has made a career out of playing seemingly ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations, but he has rarely been better than this nuanced, necessarily low-key portrayal.

The true story begins with the arrest of a painter in Brooklyn, an isolated, remarkably cool fellow named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, an instant contender for a supporting actor nomination). He’s charged with being a Russian spy and immediately demonized.

Cut to Donovan, who mostly works insurance cases. The court has decided it wants someone from a prestigious firm to defend Abel so there can be no appearance of railroading (though railroading is indeed what’s going on). It turns to Donovan’s firm and the firm turns to Donovan who, in his Tom Hanksian way and despite the protests of his wife (Amy Ryan), firmly believes every accused man deserves a robust defense.

Thus Donovan becomes the defense lawyer for the most hated man in America, effectively making himself the second most hated man in America. He argues the heck out of the case, taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, but ultimately loses. The one thing he’s successful at is staving off Abel’s execution, asking what if the Russians ever have something the U.S. wants? Abel could be trading fodder.

Sure enough, a spy plane gets shot down over Russian skies and a pilot named Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured. So the CIA asks Donovan, who has no official standing or protection whatsoever, to negotiate a trade: Abel for Powers.

This is Spielberg, of course, so the reconstruction of historical detail — the building of the Berlin Wall, 1960-era New York, indeed Donovan’s own home and look as well as his young son’s preoccupation with nuclear war — is impeccable. And the human details — the shunning and attacks on the Donovans as if they’re Soviet spies themselves, Abel’s indifferent hopelessness, the political games and brinkmanship of both the Soviets and the East Germans — all add tremendous color.

Hanks is used to being front and center, of course, but there are no fistfights in this movie, no big breakdowns, and when guns are fired it’s absolutely shocking. Yet he keeps you transfixed throughout. Written by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen, “Bridge of Spies” is a slow-burn tour de force that never lags and remembers that humor is part of the human condition no matter how dire the stakes.

It’s also Spielberg’s best movie in years (although it has a few too many endings), dealing with a part of American history many know nothing about while reflecting on much of what’s right and wrong with this country, from the sham of Abel’s defense to dangerous groupthink to the very real and recently little-used power of negotiation and compromise. Beyond that it just an extremely well-built and entertaining film. No superheroes needed, it argues: We ourselves have the potential to be heroic.

tlong@detroitnews.com

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‘Bridge of Spies’

GRADE: A-

Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language

Running time: 142 minutes