Review: Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks hit another historical home run with ‘Bridge of Spies’

At some point, Tom Hanks appointed himself the official chronicler of America in the late '50s and early '60s, with occasional digressions to earlier eras in case of world wars. I am perfectly fine with that, and I particularly like it when he and Steven Spielberg collaborate on these things. I am especially fond of “Catch Me If You Can,” and while I expected something more on the “Munich”/”Saving Private Ryan” end of the scale, I was pleased to see that “Spies” is not a thriller so much as an ode to both American diplomacy and the tradition of moral movie fathers along the lines of Atticus Finch.

In fact, there's a good deal of “To Kill A Mockingbird” in the script credited to Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen. Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is asked to do his patriotic duty by representing an accused Russian spy, Rudolf Abel, who has been arrested. This father, this moral paragon, does his hard duty, and it is deeply unpopular with the people in his community. While it makes things difficult, he sticks to his convictions, and eventually, his family sees him for the hero that he is. Those are broad strokes, and I can see how someone who loves “Mockingbird” (i.e. anyone who loves movies) would enjoy being able to play that kind of dynamic, especially with Tom Hanks playing the part.

But this is no mere exercise in pastiche. It explores a pivotal Cold War moment that was very public in some ways and absolutely secret in other ways. Donovan isn't exactly Atticus Finch because the situation he finds himself in is not one with an easy definition of wrong and right, and as it evolves, it becomes something almost wholly outside his experience, something that no one had really navigated at that point. Hanks does a tremendous job of navigating some tricky emotional water, but that seems to be second nature to him at this point. I've accepted by now that Hanks can play any scene and find the emotional meat of it. Those last few minutes of “Captain Phillips” did something so wholly real and new and raw that I found myself re-assessing Hanks, realizing that even after everything he's played, I can still underestimate him.

The first stretch of the film deals with Donovan's relationship with Abel, the Russian spy played by Mark Rylance. Rylance is a really strong English actor who has been cranking away on TV and on stage and in some interesting films over the years. I first really noticed him in “Intimacy,” which was a good but not great film sold largely on the explicit sexual content in the film. He's done some really strong work over the years. He's worked with the Quay Brothers and Peter Greenaway, and he's done real Shakespeare as well as appearing in Roland Emmerich's “Anonymous.” He's never really had a breakthrough role here in the US, but I think that's about to change. In addition to his work here as Rudolf Abel, he's also got the title role in Spielberg's next film, the adaptation of Roald Dahl's “The BFG.”

I don't pretend to know the history here. I know the Gary Powers part of the story, but I really didn't know much about the trade that was attempted as a way of rescuing him. Like many things in the various history classes I took, we learned the surface story of some of these '60s moments, but not the deeper truth behind those stories. This script unfolds in a way that is very natural, with some humor to temper some of the heavier moments, and with Donovan constantly off-balance and trying to figure out how to do things right, Hanks finds so many small human moments to play. Donovan and Abel aren't friends, per se, but there's a sense on Donovan's part that he owes this man something, his best effort as a lawyer, because that is simply what you are supposed to do. Abel, who the film clearly states was really spying against the US, can't help but respond to Donovan's ongoing and unflagging decency, and Rylance and Hanks have a beautiful quiet chemistry together.

But when Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and his U2 spy plane are shot down and the pilot is captured by the Russians, something very different begins to play out, and Donovan finds himself pressed into a different kind of service. The Russians want Abel back, and the US is determined to get Powers back, and neither side wants to officially admit it. Donovan is flown to Berlin to serve as a go-between, and we get a portrait of the city at the exact moment the Wall starts going up between the two halves of what became a perfect geographical representation of the tensions of the Cold War.

There's a potential version of this film that's played as nothing but tense set pieces about spy business, but Spielberg is at a point as a storyteller where he's interested in all sort of things besides the obvious spy games. Hanks is as bemused as he is terrified by the various mechanics of the game he's involved in, and since no one is allowed to say what they're really thinking or doing, he spends much of his time in Berlin trying to translate not just language but motivation. The large ensemble cast all does smart and interesting work, and part of what makes this feel like an unusual Spielberg film is that you can hear that strange, gorgeous music that is the language of the dialogue in a Coen Bros script, sometimes at the strangest moments. There's a scene in a Russian embassy where Donovan is introduced to “the family” of Abel, and it's clear that these people are not who they say they are. It is funny and creepy and just plain weird, all at once, and Spielberg seems to relish being able to stage something like that.

Spielberg obviously loves using the same team on his films, and the work here by Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, and Thomas Newman is uniformly excellent. I'm not always a fan of Kaminski's use of light, and I think some of the crazy ultrableached work he's done has worked against Spielberg's films. But this is more like the crisp clean period work he did in “Catch Me If You Can,” and it really works to both evoke an era and exaggerate it. Newman's score is a simple marvel, one of his best in a while.

I do think the film makes some easy connections and oversells the notion of the “evil Russians” in places. Spielberg can't resist the urge to ladle it on in certain places, but at this point, that's Spielberg. What he still does better than almost anyone is construct a sequence that just sings from start to finish. Check out the scene where Powers is shot down. It's gorgeously designed, beautifully shot, and thrillingly staged. Spielberg makes it exciting and scary, and he sells all the little human details of the panic that grips Powers as he realizes what's happening. Then watch a sequence later in the film when Donovan and an American agent sit in a room waiting for a phone call, and Spielberg wrings just as much tension from something that quiet and simple.

For some audiences, this will be too quiet, too character-focused, and it may test the patience of viewers prepped by spy films in the era of Jason Bourne. But for the most part, I felt like “Bridge Of Spies” continues that Hanks/Spielberg relationship that has yielded such interesting results so far. They may not be making movies that offer up documentary-accurate portraits of history, but they are offering up their take on the way these events made us feel as a people and how we digest them as a culture, and there is real value in that.

“Bridge Of Spies” opens everywhere today.