James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a successful lawyer with a wife (Amy Ryan), kids and the kind of home — impressive, but not ostentatious — to which most Americans aspired in the 1950s. Donovan lives a comfortable but not particularly exciting or unusual life.
That is, until he’s selected to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), who has been accused of spying for Russia. Even though he was born in England, Abel is reviled as a traitor to America, and Donovan isn’t happy about having a client that everyone hates. But he also has his principles, and he insists that Abel is entitled to a fair trial regardless of the Cold War climate.
That climate gets even chillier on May 1, 1960, when an American spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union. Donovan enters into negotiations to trade Abel for the pilot — and is plunged into a realm with which he is woefully unfamiliar. Not only must the lawyer cope with the uncertainty of securing a just outcome, but also with the possibility of getting killed.
The fact-based “Bridge of Spies” is a suspenseful yet thoughtful spy story, drenched in atmosphere and dread. Working from a script by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, director Steven Spielberg delivers a film that’s unapologetically old-fashioned. Those accustomed to cinematic flash will simply have to reorient themselves.
But the adjustment is more than worth it, as Spielberg makes spellbinding connections between the America-versus-Russia paranoia of the period in which the story takes place, and the current privacy-versus-security dilemma. The film plays as an enthralling companion piece to “Munich,” his 2005 examination of terrorism and its repercussions.
As the deeply principled Donovan, Hanks deftly balances earnestness and humor. And Rylance’s spirited performance is almost certain to yield an Oscar nomination.
Despite its genre constraints, “Bridge of Spies” is among Spielberg’s finest achievements — and a reminder that the past is much more than just a repository for nostalgia.
What “Bridge of Spies” • 3½ stars out of four • Run time 2:22 • Rating PG-13 • Content Violence and strong language