It’s impossible to picture Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies with anyone but Tom Hanks in the leading role. At a time when cynicism runs high, especially on the subject of our government, he manages to disarm us with his earnestness, becoming this generation’s equivalent of James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Another actor could have played James Donovan, the real-life attorney who was given the unenviable task of defending a Russian spy at the height of the Cold War…but Hanks makes the character both credible and relatable as few others could.
That’s not to say that this is merely a star vehicle. The brilliant Mark Rylance plays the sardonic spy, Amy Ryan is Hanks’ wife, Alan Alda is his boss, Sebastian Koch is an elusive contact on the other side of the Berlin wall, and Austin Stowell plays the notorious American pilot Francis Gary Powers. Working from a screenplay credited to Matt Charman, Ethan and Joel Coen, Spielberg recreates a time and place that moviegoers under a certain age didn’t experience, when the threat of nuclear war was tangible and schoolchildren were shown informational films like Duck and Cover. (Like most kids of my generation, I actually believed that if I crouched under my desk and turned my back to the schoolroom windows I would be spared the devastating effects of an atomic bomb.)
The film opens in 1957. James Donovan is an insurance lawyer who is recruited to serve his country by defending a high-profile prisoner and giving him his right to due process. After all, that’s the American way. This high-minded attitude isn’t shared by members of the public or the press, who see Rudolf Abel (Rylance) as an out-and-out villain: a dangerous Russian spy who should be put to death. Donovan convinces a stubborn judge to spare him with the argument that he might be useful if there were ever the need to swap for an American agent captured by our enemies. Little does he dream that this will come to pass so soon, or that he will be called upon to negotiate the trade-off.
Yet in spite of an inherently suspenseful finale, Bridge of Spies lacks the excitement this real-life story would seem to demand. Having approached the material in a methodical manner, Spielberg wraps up his movie in a quiet fashion, subduing the emotional crescendo one might anticipate from a film about one of the most sensational, headline-making events of the 20thcentury. I’m sure this, like everything the filmmaker does, was deliberate, illustrating that a modest hero like James Donovan wouldn’t seek glory or undue attention. But the result, for me, is a restrained reaction to a fascinating story. What I carry with me is boundless admiration for Tom Hanks, who makes the movie a must-see.