Bridge of Spies, a Cold War espionage thriller directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, sometimes comes off as a throwback to another era, both political and cinematic: a time when the ideological fault lines between world powers could be confidently drawn in the sand, or a Frank Capra hero could win a whole nation to his side through sheer dint of his basic American decency. But pay close attention to the smartly pinging dialogue (by Joel and Ethan Coen, rewriting an earlier script by Matt Charman): Bridge of Spies is hardly a comfy old wing chair of a movie, designed for contemporary audiences to settle into with a sigh and forget our own geopolitical troubles. This is a film that, though its story (inspired by true events) begins in 1957 and spans a period of about five years, uses that era to hold a mirror to our own.
Before you start listening carefully to Bridge of Spies’ dialogue, though, listen to its silence. In a brief but masterly opening sequence with no music and no more than the odd word of dialogue, Spielberg sketches out the whole lonely existence of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a gentle-faced amateur painter living in Brooklyn who—as we learn by the end of this self-contained mini-movie—is in fact a British-born spy for the Soviets, with an apartment full of state-of the-art surveillance gear. After a slow-moving yet suspenseful chase through the streets of a marvelously recreated mid-20th-century New York, Abel is apprehended by the American authorities and taken into custody.
But even a Soviet spy is entitled to a fair trial in this great land of ours—or so says the attorney Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), with an obvious lack of conviction, as he fobs the unpleasant case off on his junior partner James Donovan (Hanks). Donovan is an insurance lawyer, and a good one—we see him negotiating relentlessly on a client’s behalf in one early scene—but he hasn’t defended a criminal case in years, much less one this high-profile and politically incendiary. When it becomes clear that Donovan believes in that Frank Capra stuff for real—he genuinely does think Abel is entitled to the best defense he can give him, and that even enemies of the state deserve basic constitutional protections—Donovan is shunned by his workmates, his wife (Amy Ryan), and most disturbingly, even the judge who’s about to hear the case. Just go through the motions and get the bastard in the electric chair already, everyone urges—but Donovan insists he’ll take Abel’s case clear to the Supreme Court if necessary. It doesn’t hurt that the lawyer has come to like his quiet, dryly funny client, who talks very little about himself (or much else), but who gets across his deep respect for and gratitude toward Donovan, his sole advocate on hostile foreign soil.
Donovan’s strongest argument for sparing the spy from execution is that, should an American ever be captured in Soviet territory, Abel would be a valuable prisoner to exchange. A few years later—though the movie’s pacing makes it seem like only months—that opportunity arises twice over. In 1960, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), an American pilot in a U2 spy plane, is shot down over the Soviet Union, hauled before a kangaroo court, and thrown into a grim Soviet jail with no Russian Tom Hanks to stand up for him. The next year, an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) who’s courting an East German girl finds himself on the wrong side of the newly built Berlin Wall literally as the last bricks are being mortared into place. (The scene in which the young sweethearts, on bikes, almost make it past the wall is the film’s weakest, and the moment Spielberg comes closest being the schlock merchant his detractors too often paint him as).
Because of his prior relationship with Abel, Donovan is flown to Berlin to help negotiate the prisoner exchange. A touchy East German official (The Lives of Others’ Sebastian Koch) insists that the German Democratic Republic and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are two entirely separate political entities and will not consider striking a deal together. But Donovan stands firm: He isn’t leaving until he’s secured the release of both young men in exchange for his single high-value prisoner, even over the objections of the CIA itself.
Bridge of Spies only contains a scene or two in which a character is directly faced with the threat of death (though when those scenes come, like that U2 crash over Russian territory, they’re heart-stopping). This is a movie driven by moral and political standoffs, not physical ones, and the fact that not every plot development is signaled by a fresh act of violence comes as a welcome relief from the casually high body count of your average espionage thriller. But a sense of menace hangs over every scene that not even Donovan’s most skillful bargaining can begin to dispel: the threat of global thermonuclear war. With a few decades’ distance, it’s possible to see the absurd waste of those Cold War years, during which the world’s two great superpowers entered an insane competition to develop ever more powerful technologies of mass death, while expending enormous manpower on high-tech ways of confirming what we both already knew: that the other side was doing pretty much the same thing.
Donovan’s opinion on the constitutional rights of what are now known as “enemy combatants” remains an unpopular one nearly 60 years later—just ask the prisoners at Guantánamo. But as he did in Lincoln, Spielberg lets any comparison with contemporary politics arise in the viewers’ mind on its own, never signposting the parallels too clearly. He’s a director who can play hard on the emotions (though Bridge of Spies shows unaccustomed restraint in that department), but he shows a surprisingly light touch with ideas.
Hanks is the ideal actor to play Donovan, who falls into the global espionage gig almost despite himself. Only Hanks could exude that air of sturdy Capra-esque decency without appearing to pat himself on the back, while also convincing us he might be quick-witted enough to pull off this ad hoc feat of Cold War diplomacy. Mark Rylance, the great English actor, director, and playwright who for a decade was the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, performs some mysterious act of alchemy in his role as the ineffable and unflappable Soviet spy. Almost without speaking a word, he communicates this character’s rich inner life, in which a near-Buddhist resignation to the whims of fate alternates with a feisty instinct for self-preservation.
Through all this, Spielberg continues his decades-long run of somehow knowing exactly where to place a movie camera. Whether he’s crosscutting between two men with umbrellas as one trails another down a rain-slicked street, or pulling back for a full view of the bridge referenced in the title (Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge, which connected the Eastern and Western sectors of the city and became a common spot for prisoner swaps), Spielberg has an effortless-seeming knack for creating compositions that are not just lovely to look at but integral to the idea or emotion he’s trying to express. Near the end, when the camera pulls back for that somber high-angle shot of Glienicke Bridge in the snow, it’s the director’s way of shifting our focus from this particular story—a man on a bridge one winter day long ago, trying to help three other men get home—to the decades of history that have come and gone since. The one-time “bridge of spies” may have become, in our time, just a convenient way to get across the now-open city of Berlin. But the kind of liminal space the bridge represents—a border where opposing ideological systems come into contact, and the potential for violent conflict always looms—has only proliferated around the globe in our terror-haunted post-superpower era. It’s a cold, dark, morally ambivalent world out there, and not everyone has the good fortune to place their civil liberties in the trustworthy hands of Tom Hanks.