Cold War at it coldest in fine Spielberg film

Bridge of Spies poster

From the Cold War era, most are familiar with the name Gary Francis Powers, the U2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union, captured and released back to the U.S. in a dramatic exchange for a Russian spy in 1962. But the name James B. Donovan is less familiar, and yet without him, the exchange might have never happened.

He gets his due in Steven Spielberg’s new movie set during this tense time when school children were frequently terrorized with the old “duck and cover” films that dramatically detailed the aftereffects of a nuclear bomb. There’s a scene describing this in the movie showing children scrambling under their school desks, but the movie opens silently as Russian mole Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a stooped, sad-faced painter living in Brooklyn, snares a hollow nickel from a dead drop under a park bench unaware of the FBI detail following his every move.

He’s soon arrested and James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer with a prestigious Washington firm, is asked to represent him. His superior, played by Alan Alda, warns him while Mr. Abel is entitled to a defense under American law, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the best defense. After all, Able is a detested spy, and the public is crying for the death penalty.

But Donovan, this movie’s moral compass at many points, goes on to provide the best legal defense he is capable of, managing to spare Abel the death penalty in a personal appeal to the judge.

His prediction, that one day Able may provide the leverage needed to bring home an American in the same predicament, turns out to be correct when Powers is captured. Once again, Donovan is asked to help his government negotiate the trade since he will be acting as a private citizen and not a U.S. official.

This leads him to Berlin and a triangulated negotiation with the East Germans for the return of an American student caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, as well as Powers, who is under the control of the Russians.

It is here Spielberg begins to morph the story into a whiz-bang spy thriller complete with shady characters, all of whom seem to have ulterior motives, leaving a frustrated Donovan wondering if even he is safe as he travels back and forth from West to East Berlin in the dead of winter, giving a new meaning to the term “Cold War.”

I can’t vouch for the historical accuracy of this story, written by Mark Charman along with Ethan and Joel Cohen, but it has a lot going for it including the articulate, intelligent script. This definitely has the Spielberg touch, although he seems to have adopted a more mature approach, making this one of his best films in many years. This is found in the way he restrains himself from the usual preachification in which he is prone to indulge. Sure, Donovan enjoys a few moments to proselytize about the Constitution and what it means to be an American, but it’s toned down. One thing is certain: Spielberg subtly points us to parallels between then and now, suggesting that nothing has really changed but the geography and making the inference that foreign relations are no better now than before.

Technically, this is a gorgeous movie with production values that are first rate. Filmed by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski, the movie also enjoys a finely etched feel for the time period that evokes that found in Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show.” Scenes from Donovan’s home life with his wholesome kids and wife (played by Amy Ryan) seem plucked from “Father Knows Best,” right down to the dinner table scenes.

Still, this is a movie about spies and spying and a cold Cold War, and it’s very good.


‘Bridge of Spies’

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13