The opening minutes of “Bridge of Spies” feature some of the best filmmaking in Steven Spielberg’s career. The rest is more familiar. But first, there’s the engrossing suspense of a nearly wordless prologue, in which poker-faced Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) goes about his business in late fifties Brooklyn and buries his intel just as the FBI closes in. While the rousing tale of espionage has plenty of appealingly old-fashioned qualities, there’s no doubting Spielberg’s ability to devise visually arresting moments that speak to the movie’s themes far better than its story.
The gentle Abel’s apprehension by anonymous authorities suggests an ambiguous sense of right and wrong — a conceit quickly undone, moments later, by the first shot of Tom Hanks’ face. Veering from complex, layered storytelling to routine exposition, “Bridge of Spies” is a neat encapsulation of America’s great commercial director pushing for sophistication while sticking to familiar beats.
The ensuing plot relegates Abel to a supporting role as it focuses on Hanks as good-natured attorney James Donovan, who’s tasked with defending Abel in an obvious lost cause. Vilified by the media for rescuing a Communist, he ultimately gets swept up in a daring attempt to swap the prisoner for two Americans in Soviet custody. Out of his league but firmly committed to seeing things through, Donovan’s journey falls into the bucket of Spielbergian tales involving nearly flawless men acting for the good of their country and family.
But it’s better than a lot of them. Unlike “Munich” or “Amistad,” the new movie benefits from an ebullient script originally written by playwright Matt Charman and punched up by Joel and Ethan Coen. Just as Tony Kushner brought an air of intellectual gravitas to “Lincoln,” the Coens introduce a surprising amount of levity to “Bridge of Spies,” a story that doesn’t easily lend itself to wit. Yet Donovan’s smarmy reactions to the bureaucratic challenges placed in front of him lead to constant amusing exchanges. Tasked with defending Abel in a case for which even the judge has already determined the outcome, he sighs, “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose.”
Donovan’s resigned tone belies a mounting sense of commitment to saving the day, and when the CIA asks him to go undercover in East Berlin to negotiate a swap, Donovan barely hesitates. He has his practical reasons: Defending Abel has put the lawyer and his family in the crosshairs of angry Americans. More than that, Donovan simply does the right thing because he must — even going beyond the call of duty and attempting to negotiate the release of a second prisoner.
Such fierce commitment against daunting odds goes unquestioned throughout “Bridge of Spies,” but Donovan’s patriotic sense of duty is so infectious that it’s easy to get swept up in his dangerous cause. Hanks tends to have that effect.
Given the expectations for the role, Hanks turns in a finely tuned, jovial performance in a movie that barely gives much screen time to other characters (Amy Ryan, as Donovan’s concerned wife, barely registers as more than prop). It’s Rylance, however, who stands out as the most potent ingredient: His muted delivery speaks to a mounting sense of internal agendas that remain unexpressed throughout. It gets to the point where Donovan repeatedly asks the imprisoned man why he’s not worried, only to receive a cocked eyebrow and the soft refrain, “Would it help?”
Even as Abel keeps his cool, however, Spielberg keeps viewers on edge with a plot that keeps thickening until the very end. One dynamic sequence cross-cuts from Donovan addressing the Supreme Court about his client and a terrifying plane crash 70,000 feet above Soviet territory. That’s where Air Force soldier Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) gets detained, just in time for the Americans to negotiate a release. Meanwhile, harmless American college student Frederic Pryor finds himself arrested in East Berlin, a widely publicized incident that leads Donovan to demand a two-for-one trade, despite the CIA’s disinterest in Pryor’s case.
As Donovan finds himself wandering East Berlin, facing off against a series of dubious allies at various embassies, Spielberg develops a compelling look at Germany’s fragmented identity and its troubled American relationships through the lens of a single innocent observer. “Is this an agreement or a conspiracy?” he’s asked by one German negotiator. While confident about his own motives, Donovan’s never entirely sure.
No matter how many twists it takes, “Bridge of Spies” maintains a predictable visual polish thanks to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, whose blue-hued street scenes and bright indoor lighting have been become as much Spielbergian touchstones as its themes. The score, by Spielberg newcomer Thomas Newman, apes the John Williams playbook of gentle piano and occasional trumpeting declarations. It’s never subtle, but even a smart movie about dueling agendas like “Bridge of Spies” winds up in some pretty obvious places.
Eventually wrestling control of the situation from inept governmental forces, Donovan’s efforts call to mind Tony Mendez, the ambitious CIA operative played by Ben Affleck in “Argo.” Both men, non-fictional characters capable of sensational feats, become vessels for celebratory tales of American heroism. They’re selfless husbands and fathers, tangled up in risky espionage and committed to a greater good that’s barely questioned. Even so, “Bridge of Spies” contains just a hint of subversiveness in its suggestion that the same people employing Donovan care less about morality than victory. Donovan isn’t fighting the Soviets so much as the maintenance of the American way.
His idealism fits a movie that could have been made at the same time as its period. Even the shades of darkness carry a slight antiquated quality. “Bridge of Spies” offers an easy access point for celebrating a genuine Cold War victory. Spielberg, however, makes that gamble surprisingly palatable. No other major American filmmaker provides such a welcoming embrace.
“Bridge of Spies” premiered this weekend at the New York Film Festival. It opens nationwide on October 16.