As he reaches the middle of his fifth decade of filmmaking, Steven Spielberg has been on something of a historical tear. He found a way to find hope in the bloody trenches of The Great War in “War Horse” and painted a portrait of a conflicted president at, arguably, the most crucial moment in American history with “Lincoln.” Spielberg’s latest endeavor, “Bridge of Spies,” takes audiences into the heart of the Cold War and reminds us of an unheralded hero who truly deserves the spotlight, James Donovan.
A successful insurance lawyer who was part of the prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials, Donovan (Tom Hanks) was recruited in 1957 to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) for espionage. “Spies” chronicles not only his handling of Abel’s case against a legal system that had already presumed his guilt before trial, but the events leading up to Francis Gary Powers capture for piloting a CIA U-2 plane over the Soviet Union. Along with Frederic Pryor, an American student arrested by the East German police and held for political leverage, the three men became part of a prisoner exchange that was orchestrated secretly by none other than Donovan.
Working of a screenplay credited to Matt Chaman and Ethan & Joel Cohen, Spielberg basically has two different stories to tell. The first is Abel’s trial that is a poignant reminder of the fanaticism that can creep into the American justice system. It also subtly builds the respect between Donovan and Abel that pays off in the movie’s second story, the former’s secret diplomatic mission to Berlin. It’s a true testament to Spielberg’s filmmaking prowess that the actual film works so seamlessly. Sure, there are a few instances where the fat could be trimmed. The set up for Powers mission is more involved than it needs to be and you can absolutely argue too much attention is paid to the legal aspects of Abel’s case. Then again, you can tell how much fun Spielberg is having wading into the spy movie genre even if it strains historical credibility at times.
What really makes the “Spies” so compelling is yet another charismatic turn by Hanks, a familiar refrain heard over the past 25 years. This is the fourth collaboration between these particular icons and their comfort with each other is clearly evident in Hank’s performance. The two-time Oscar winner is blazingly confident and relaxed making sure Donovan’s intrinsic beliefs don’t overshadow a humane earnestness which make it clear why he turned out to be such an expert negotiator.
“Spies” could also not succeed without the right man playing the real spy at the center of the story, Abel. Rylance, a three-time Tony Award winner, portrays the spy with a quiet subtlety that plays wonderfully opposite Hanks everyman Donovan. The performance was already dangerously close to being overpraised before this review was even published, but Abel’s arc is important in conveying why Donovan would go to such lengths to help him client return home.
Outside of Hanks and Rylance, “Bridges” benefits from a strong supporting cast including Amy Ryan as Donovan’s wife Mary, Dakin Matthews as the presiding judge in Abel’s trial and Jon Curry as the CIA contact increasingly frustrated by Donovan’s negotiating strategy.
At times cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Adam Stockhausen collaborate to create a level of beautiful period realism rarely seen in a Spielberg film. There are a few scenes in Brooklyn that feel as though you are actually walking through the borough on a partly cloudy spring day in 1957. Comparatively, the Berlin scenes appear as though they’ve been shot on an obvious sound stage that only accentuates the feeling that you’re possibly watching two different movies. It’s an odd juxtaposition to be sure.
It must be noted that “Spies” is also uncharted waters in one particular area for the iconic filmmaker. It’s the first film without a “Music By” credit for John Williams since Spielberg’s legitimate Hollywood career began with “The Sugarland Express.” Thomas Newman steps in, but the results are much less memorable than you’d expect from the composer of “American Beauty” and “The Shawshank Redemption.” At times it sounds like Newman is trying to stick so much to Williams’ classic style that any semblance of a unique melody gets lost.
“Bridge of Spies” may not rank as one of Spielberg’s absolute best films, but it still effectively demonstrates how sharp and entertaining his skill set can be. Especially when someone like Hanks, at the peak of his craft, is on board.
“Bridge of Spies” opens nationwide on Oct. 16.