Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s first movie in three years, is a perfect companion piece to his previous film, Lincoln. Both are historical dramas about a man struggling to do the right thing in the face of grave opposition from the public and the government. Both are based on true stories (although Bridge plays looser with the facts). And both are examples of what happens when Spielberg brings his considerable talents to bear on a story that is comprised primarily of loaded conversations, with little in the way of traditional action.
The movie kicks off with a wonderful setpiece that shows off Spielberg’s ability to tell a story primarily through visuals — is there any other filmmaker working today better at this? We meet Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in his Brooklyn apartment, staring in the mirror and painting a self-portrait. The multiple faces are the first sign there’s something up with this seemingly ordinary man. The phone rings; he answers silently, listens, hangs up and heads outside.
Rudolf is being followed by FBI agents as he hops on the subway, sits on a park bench and begins to paint. Spielberg’s camera shows us that Abel is carrying out some sort of mission — he picks up what appears to be a nickel that has been left for him — right under the noses of the men who are shadowing him. He returns home, cracks the coin open and pulls out some sort of document.
Then the agents barge in, charge him with espionage and arrest him. The entire sequence — swift, precise, commanding — is as close to traditional action as Bridge of Spies ever gets (a later scene, involving the crash of an Air Force U-2 plane, is more spectacular but less essential, like something that was thrown in to kick the pace up). The first half of this complicated, obviously personal movie consists of a lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), negotiating his way through a rigged assignment: Provide Abel with a proper legal defense, but don’t defend him too well, because we want to make sure he gets put away.
Set in the late 1950s, the first hour of Bridge of Spies allows Spielberg the opportunity to revisit his childhood fears — Russia, the bomb, the duck-and-cover schoolroom classes, commie paranoia. Working from a screenplay by Matt Charman that was honed and polished by Joel and Ethan Coen, Spielberg posits the movie’s central dilemma cleanly and neatly: Does a criminal deserve all the rights offered by the Constitution, even when he’s caught committing treason?
As played by Rylance, a celebrated English actor, playwright and director, Abel bears no ill will toward America. He’s just doing what’s being asked of him, the same way Donovan is. When Abel is found guilty and sentenced to 30 years, he practically shrugs; Donovan seems more interested in appealing the decision than he is.
Hanks has played so many moral, conscionable men that he’s practically synonymous with goodness, like James Stewart before him. But he doesn’t coast, and he finds intriguing wrinkles in Donovan, a man who is surprised to discover an inner fire he didn’t know he had (the real-life Donovan had much more experience with espionage and the CIA than his movie incarnation). Even after public opinion turns against him — he’s guilty by association — and his wife (Amy Ryan) and family suffer the consequences, Donovan refuses to go through the motions. He kicks Abel’s case up to the Supreme Court, the way he would with any other client, because that’s his job, and Spielberg shows us how even Abel gradually comes to admire him.
The second half of Bridge of Spies, which involves an American pilot arrested and charged with espionage for flying over Soviet airspace, as well as a college student held prisoner by the German authorities, grows more complicated and denser: The movie is unusually heavy on dialogue, although Spielberg and his go-to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski give the images a luxurious, brooding sheen. The climax, which sticks closely to history, is somewhat underwhelming considering the buildup.
But Spielberg isn’t out to conquer the world this time. Bridge of Spies has been described as a minor work from a major filmmaker, but the film is too personal to dismiss as a curiosity, and its overall theme blends right in with many of Spielberg’s previous pictures (most notably Munich, Schindler’s List and yes, Lincoln): In a world that’s been turned sideways, where it’s no longer easy to tell right from wrong, how do we preserve our integrity and character while fighting for justice and the common good?
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, Billy Magnussen, Austin Stowell.
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Screenwriters: Matt Charman, Joel and Ethan Coen.
A DreamWorks Pictures release. Running time: 141 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence. In English, German and Russian with English subtitles. Playing at area theaters.