Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have joined forces once again to bring us a well-crafted film based on an interesting bit of twentieth century history. This time it’s the story of James Donovan (Hanks), a lawyer who specialized in insurance cases but was asked by his firm to defend a suspected Soviet spy during the Cold War 1950s. Donovan’s involvement in the trial led to another unexpected role: he was asked to help negotiate an exchange of spies between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Bridge of Spies effectively transports viewers to the era of fear and suspicion the Cold War inspired in American adults and children alike. Donovan fought for his client to benefit from the judicial system and Constitution that Americans valued and held up as superior to communism. But it was an uphill battle when that fear and suspicion provoked emotional responses from judges, juries, and the general public. Donovan and his family became targets of hate and anger from those who interpreted his defense as a support of communism.
Parallels could be drawn between the Cold War climate of the 50s and the post-9/11 angst of today. The inability to have a basic trust of others inevitably breaks down the effectiveness of systems and structures. The movie quietly advocates for the need to see our fellow human beings as fully human, first and foremost, rather than as a caricature or stereotype of whatever group they represent to us.
Mark Rylance is fantastic in his understated performance of convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. He doesn’t proclaim his innocence or make a play for sympathy, so his defense is based solely on the rights that American law would afford anyone. Hanks plays Donovan as a stalwart and forthright man navigating a bewildering set of circumstances, motivated by a desire for true justice.
The movie would have benefited from a tighter edit; it drags on a bit with over-long camera shots and swelling music. I felt a little too distanced to really believe Donovan was ever in any serious danger. That feeling of distance got a jump-start when Donovan went home for dinner at the start of the film and sat down at the table with his young children. Hanks is clearly older than the character, and that took me out of the story a bit, making me think of him as Tom Hanks rather than James Donovan. Perhaps that’s why I had trouble believing anything bad could really happen to him.
Those minor complaints won’t keep me from recommending this otherwise excellent film. Bridge of Spies is an entertaining movie with beautiful visuals and a lot of heart.