This has become the year of espionage films. Guy Ritchie’s breezily entertaining big-screen reimagining of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., an early-’60s-set prequel of the 1964-68 TV series, sadly came and went pretty quickly, but we’d already been treated to a wealth of wonderful spy movies in cinemas. Ritchie clearly enjoyed paying homage to James Bond just as much as Matthew Vaughn did with his comic book-spawned Kingsman: The Secret Service and Paul Feig did with his more broadly comic Spy, while Christopher McQuarrie’s thrilling Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation improved upon almost everything those pictures did well, reigniting the public’s passion for couch-jumping crazy Tom Cruise, who really must be insane to film his own spectacular stunts. The jury’s still out on Spectre, Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes’ dour-looking Bond picture that features Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as 007, but it will likely have a license to kill all of its onscreen competition when it shoots into cineplexes in early November.
But before then, you can satisfy your spycraft cravings with Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. A handsome dramatization of real events that took place during the late ’50s and early ’60s, the multiple Oscar winner’s latest finds him returning to the talents of one of his (and America’s) favorite leading men, Tom Hanks. For their fourth collaboration, Hanks dials down the comic instincts that defined his early career, slipping comfortably back into Jimmy Stewart’s old shoes as modern cinema’s everyman. He plays Cold War hero James B. Donovan, who defends himself and others armed not with a gun, but with the Constitution.
Donovan may end up in East Berlin on the titular Glienicke Bridge, but he’s no spy; he’s a lawyer, which comes in handy when the U.S. government arrests accused spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a balding, unassuming man in horn-rimmed glasses. Donovan is tapped as the defense attorney for the “Colonel,” as the federal agents call the British-born Soviet citizen during his arrest in the film’s masterful prologue—a wordless sequence that makes the 54-year-old art enthusiast’s guilt explicit. It tracks Abel from his Brooklyn apartment to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, where he sets up his easel and sits on a public bench, painting while secretly intercepting a coded message hidden inside a false nickel he retrieves from the bench’s underside. It’s obvious to us (but not him) that he’s been tailed through New York’s streets and subways by agents who nevertheless botch the bust back at his apartment when we (but not they) witness him destroying the evidence, keeping his composure as he finally adds dialogue to the scene, asking “Mind if I fetch my teeth?”
Does Donovan believe his coolly expressionless client is guilty? It doesn’t matter, given the lawyer’s belief that “everyone deserves a defense. Everyone matters.” Nevertheless, it becomes obvious to Donovan that no one else feels this way during a pretrial meeting with Judge Mortimer Byers (Dakin Matthews), who demonstrates what little interest he has in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” as it relates to Abel.
What’s more, Donovan understands what will happen to his reputation when he defends one of the most hated men in the country, despite the protestations of his wife, Mary (Amy Ryan, who’s unfortunately given very little to do). “Everyone will hate me,” he realizes, “but at least I’ll lose.” Perhaps Donovan has a touch of that Hanks humor, after all.
Then again, maybe much of the understated humor in the film—from the snappy patter to the enjoyably eccentric characters Donovan encounters once he’s recruited by CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to arrange a spy exchange—comes from a script that is credited to Joel and Ethan Coen, working from an earlier draft by Matt Charman. That’s right, the Coen brothers.
Mind you, Spielberg’s earnestness and faith in our democracy is what shows through, so if you’re hoping for ironic snark, be aware that this is no Inside Llewyn Davis, even if the cold, snowy palette of the Coens’ most recent masterpiece pops up in an East Berlin that’s so desaturated it’s almost rendered in black and white, courtesy of Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski.
Speaking of frequent collaborators, this is the first Spielberg film since 1985’s The Color Purple that hasn’t been scored by John Williams, who backed out due to health issues. Nevertheless, composer Thomas Newman does his best to emulate Williams’ playbook on at least half the cues. One such piece (reliant on a Lincoln-like arrangement of strings and horns) is used in a sequence that cross-cuts between Jim arguing Abel’s appeal before the Supreme Court and a U-2 spy plane mission that ends abruptly with pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) being shot down over Russia.
The trade that Donovan is tasked with is an even swap: Abel for Powers. But when he learns that innocent American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is also being held in East Berlin, our hero hopes to negotiate the release of both Powers and Pryor, despite the U.S. government’s lack of concern for the student. To them, he’s a nobody—but to Donovan, every American deserves freedom. Bridge of Spies may be set during the height of the Cold War, but Spielberg’s subtext is progressively modern; freedom isn’t truly free if you value national security and state secrets over our Constitution.
Bridge of Spies ***
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Eve Hewson, Noah Schnapp, Alan Alda, Peter McRobbie, Dakin Matthews, Billy Magnussen, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Stephen Kunken, Scott Shepherd, Burghart Klaußner, Mikhail Gorevoy and Sebastian Koch. Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Directed by Steven Spielberg. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.