With the exception of “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg hasn’t made a memorable film in some time. And please, don’t try to defend “War Horse.” Such trite melodrama deserves no applause.
But “Bridge of Spies” is a reminder that the “Jaws” director doesn’t need animatronics or CGI to tell a great story. He knows drama, especially drama based on actual events and packed with suspense.
At the height of the Cold War, the FBI uncovers Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). And when placing someone like Abel on trial, the U.S. government needs to at least appear fair, so they choose insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to represent the defendant. Donovan seems to be a capable lawyer, but he hasn’t practiced criminal law in some time. He’s a fish out of water.
The only problem: he isn’t truly a fish out of water at all. The actual James B. Donovan was a naval officer. More notably, he presented evidence at the Nuremberg trials in Germany after World War II. It’s a touch misleading to depict Donovan as just some insurance guy without reference to two key reasons he was likely chosen for the task. Screenwriters Ethan and Joel Coen (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Big Lebowski”) are more out of place here, co-writing a film that’s far more sentimental than anything they appear capable of.
Donovan takes on Abel’s case based on constitutional idealism: everyone deserves a defense, every life matters. Too bad the public doesn’t share his beliefs as he becomes Public Enemy No. 2. Abel just beat him out. This takes quite a toll on the Donavan family, especially wife Mary (Amy Ryan) who counts the days until the trial’s conclusion.
But the American courtroom is only part of this saga after Soviets shoot down Francis Gary Powers’ (Austin Stowell) U-2 spy plane during a CIA reconnaissance mission. Eventually, our humble, inexperienced-but-more-so-than-the-film-lets-on lawyer must travel to East and West Berlin to negotiate a trade. With no official power through the government and minimal support from the CIA abroad, Donovan must “feel it out,” as an operative explains, as he meets with representatives from the Soviet Union and Germany to oversee an impossible task.
“The Good Wife” is an amazing show, particularly praised for its depiction of courtroom drama and legal accuracy. And it’s strange to hear that show screaming in the back of my head when Donovan attempts to mount a defense for his client and the judge outright calls the legal proceedings an empty gesture since a more pressing matter – national security – should be of greater concern. That dude should have recused himself, but whatever. I cringe at the thought of due process for its own sake.
But the trial phase is only half the film, so my intrigue with lawyering up against a hostile judge and a likely biased jury is barely tickled. It happened, and they move on. Anyway, it’s all a setup for the second, more thrilling half of the story – the one where ignorant neighbors aren’t vandalizing Donovan’s house.
Now, he’s fighting a cold thanks to severe weather differences and fearing for his safety. But it’s Tom Hanks … I mean James B. Donovan, and the guy makes it all look natural. Some “angsty” German youths steal his coat, he gets a new one. CIA agents question his tactics, he ignores them and calls his wife for an update on the homestead. And when foreign operatives try to play a fast one on him, he gets into an international staring contest. Why? Because he’s Tom Hanks … I mean, James B. Donovan.
What I’m trying to say is Hanks loves this kind of role: the underdog who only stands out because of his ability to stand by his beliefs. Kant would be proud. And it makes for entertaining cinema. Historically accurate? Not likely. But when you’ve got Hanks in the lead and Spielberg taking the wheel magic normally occurs. Unless it’s “The Terminal” – that was some reel trash.
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