The year is 1957, and the case of a captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, unexpectedly goes to Brooklyn insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge of Spies." The trial is meant only for show, but Donovan happens to care about due process. Bucking public opinion, his own boss and even the CIA, Donovan takes Abel's case all the way to the Supreme Court.
His argument, in a nutshell, is that if America is truly the nobler superpower, we should prove it. That means adhering to our constitution even when dealing with a Russian agent. "Will we stand by our cause," Donovan asks, "less resolutely than he stands by his?"
That stirring moment, with its echoes of present-day dilemmas over enemy combatants and civil liberties, marks the halfway point of "Bridge of Spies," which soon kicks into gear as an espionage thriller. Donovan is sent overseas on a secret mission to swap Russia's Abel (a wonderfully world-weary Mark Rylance) for our U-2 pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). As an added wrinkle, Yale student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) has been unjustly jailed in East Germany, so Donovan -- a born negotiator -- decides to spring him, too. The film's title refers to the handoff point: the perilous Glienicke Bridge between the Eastern Bloc and West Berlin.
"Bridge of Spies" is classically Spielberg -- handsome-looking, well-acted (Hanks is perfect as a Cold War Atticus Finch; Amy Ryan briefly plays his wife) and thoroughly American. One reason Spielberg's dramas are such crowd pleasers is that they're populist but never partisan. Even in our increasingly fragmented body politic, Spielberg can still speak to an overarching "us." He has never directly addressed current events (not for him the gay-rights drama or the Iraq War polemic), preferring instead to mine the past in movies like "Amistad" and "Schindler's List." It's a politically safe approach, to be sure, but it's also what makes his films feel so universal and timeless.
"Bridge of Spies" is another fine example. Written with intelligence and wry humor by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, it's glossy entertainment that has the ring of deeper truths.
FOUR FILMS ABOUT COLD WAR SPIES
The Cold War is a hot topic in “Bridge of Spies.” Here are four other films about spies and the Cold War that gave audiences chills.
THE IPCRESS FILE (1965) — Michael Caine became a bona fide star playing Harry Palmer, an agent who is just as skilled at making a souffle as he is finding out who has kidnapped and brainwashed some British scientists.
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1965) — Richard Burton starred as a British agent about to undertake one last mission in his fight against the Cold War. The role brought Burton one of his seven Oscar nominations, none of which translated into a victory.
THE DEADLY AFFAIR (1966) — James Mason starred in this film based on John le Carré’s novel about a British agent trying to find out what caused a government official’s employee to kill himself.
TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) — Gary Oldman starred as George Smiley, le Carré’s veteran espionage agent who comes out of semiretirement to uncover a Soviet agent infiltrating British intelligence.