In these troubled times, America and the world could do worse than to look to the pages of history for some salutary lessons on how to deal with the current volatility we live with. It is serendipitous, then, that Steven Spielberg’s magnificent true-life drama “Bridge Of Spies” arrives in cinemas this week to provide the small ray of hope that good, honourable people can make a difference.
When a U2 spy plane is shot down over Soviet territory, the pilot is taken captive and informal contact is made to tentatively propose a prisoner exchange: the pilot Francis Gary Powers in exchange for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent who has been arrested and imprisoned in America. Unable to be seen to be negotiating, the CIA asks insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) – who was coerced into defending Abel during his espionage trial – to undertake the negotiations for them.
Although the trailer may give the impression of a ‘ticking clock thriller’, “Bridge Of Spies” is actually a richly entertaining, expertly crafted drama. Hanks is, of course, an old hand at the principled everyman character but it’s his quiet conviction and humble authority which gives the drama much of its potency as Donovan’s belief in justice drives him on in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles. In the hands of other actors, this could have easily become a showy, grandstanding role but Hanks and Spielberg keep it low key to tremendous effect. Mark Ryland is likewise superb as the slyly placid Abel, deftly portraying a man hiding his keen intelligence behind the banalest of facades. There’s a wonderful rapport between the two actors infusing the men they’re playing with a bond of honour and mutual respect.
Spielberg, working from a script by playwright Matt Charman and polished by the Coen brothers, reigns in his usual visual flourishes and instead aims squarely and successfully for authenticity. He skillfully recreates the post-McCarthy Cold War atmosphere of paranoia and fear as well as the shifting, capricious and barbed political and diplomatic manoeuvring required to pull off the exchange. Counterpointing Donovan’s tireless defence of Abel’s rights with the cruelty and brutality of the construction of the Berlin Wall provides a historical perspective on the present day.
“Bridge Of Spies” is an absorbing film from a master director showcasing a note-perfect performance from Hanks and a gripping true-life insight to the slightest of thaws during the iciest period of the Cold War.