Over the years, Tom Hanks has cultivated an unofficial status as cinema’s spokesman for The Greatest Generation. First, with his Oscar nominated turn as Capt. John Miller in the celebrated “Saving Private Ryan” and then in producing the seminal HBO serial “Band of Brothers”. And so while his casting in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War era tale “Bridge of Spies” might have been inevitable, it is nonetheless impeccable, because all that past Hanks history perfectly informs his role as the real-life Jim Donovan, a WWII vet turned insurance lawyer who agrees to represent a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Donovan is enlisted to provide the appearance of a fair trial but Donovan wants to do this because he truly believes that even a man everyone wants to see hanged is afforded the right to a fair trial.
Hanks can downplay with the best of ‘em, and that modulation is extremely crucial to the all-around success of “Bridge of Spies.” This easily could have devolved into sentimental mush with Donovan flailing his arms and pounding his fists, crying “…And Justice For All!” Instead Hanks outfits his Donovan with an almost incredulous air about the one-sided bureaucracy he repeatedly encounters, as well as a quiet disbelief at so many informal hanging judges surrounding him, from cops to a painfully on-the-nose sequence aboard public transit where everyone stares at Donovan like he’s fugitive Richard Kimble on the el in the Windy City. But Hanks never goes all-in on this public crucible nor does he go all in on playing a crusader. He evinces a genuine attorney, a man who knows politicking is the only way to get things done. The scene when Donovan visits the Judge’s home for a “narrowly legal” discussion finds him using his lawyerly charm to sly effect, rolling around in the mud without disturbing his cufflinks.
Still, Donovan’s worldview is altered, and this is because of his working relationship with Abel. Where everyone else sees a stone cold enemy, Donovan sees a guy. Granted, that guy is written a bit too platitudinous, but Abel’s humanity nonetheless comes through in Rylance’s incredibly restrained performance that gracefully conveys how he views himself not as a hero of his homeland but a man simply enlisted to do a job. In that way, Abel is not unlike Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), an American U2 spy plane pilot shot down over the Soviet Union and taken prisoner in a subplot that comes across a bit rushed and broad, as does the side story of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a Yale economics student in East Germany who winds up in the hands of the Stasi when they presume his American accent means he’s a spy. Neither Powers nor Pryor have any texture. They are basically just instruments of the plot, existing to provide counterweight to Abel’s plight and to be put in harm’s way so they can be saved. And yet…their very cipher-ish nature is also makes them resonate.
As the story turns, Donovan becomes less a lawyer and more an agent of American espionage, enlisted by the United States government to travel to volatile Berlin, shimmying between West and East, brokering a prisoner exchange, Abel for Powers. And once Donovan discovers that Pryor is also being held, he goes rogue, trying to include this hapless student in the prisoner swap as well. Donovan doesn’t know these men and doesn’t need to know them or who they are to act on their behalf; he just knows it’s the right thing to do.
Taken as a whole, “Bride of Spies” becomes less about the nature of this spy game then this ordinary man turned hero standing up for what’s good about his country even as his country seems to misplace its own principals in the name of keeping itself safe against terrorism. You might wish Spielberg pushed harder at the notion that America was just as mixed up in all this nefariousness as the “bad guys”. But that’s not Spielberg’s style; cinematographic Americana, however, is. Which is why even as Donovan makes his appeal to the Supreme Court, where we all know he doesn’t stand a chance, because this is all a dog & pony show to make it appear as if it isn’t propaganda when it is so obviously is, Spielberg and his cinematographer of usual choice can’t help but illuminate those hallowed halls with beatific lighting, those white floors gleaming, as if it’s all just saints, no sinners.
If the American sequences are often bathed in a radiant, occasionally autumnal, light, scenes set inside East Berlin are more gray and unsparing. A sequence of Donovan making his way alone through the streets to facilitate secret meetings turns an otherwise picturesque snowfall ominous, being robbed of his Saks Fifth Ave overcoat, left to facilitate secret meetings on the other side of that big beautiful wall with a nasty cold. He tells everyone he meets he just wants to go home and get into bed.
He does, sure enough, in a scene that briefly seems like a paean to tranquil domesticity, a reminder that order has been re-sorted, and it seems, briefly, the movie might end there, snug as a blanket. One more shot awaits, however, and Hanks’ reaction, swiftly transforming from contentedness to distress, re-configures everything, tempering a happy ending. The Cold War rages on.