Tom Hanks is Steven Spielberg’s great stoic hero. In Saving Private Ryan, he’s the schoolteacher soldier, trying to maintain a semblance of sense in the chaos of World War II; in Catch Me If You Can, he’s the befuddled Fed, blustering through every airy caper to drag the conman hero back down to earth. And in Bridge of Spies, Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a lawyer who defended the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel after his arrest in 1957, performing the vital duty of representing American fairness, and giving Abel his day in court. More importantly, to Spielberg, Donovan actually put in effort as Abel’s lawyer rather than serve as a simple prop, a distinction that recurs in the film time and time again.
Scripted by the playwright Matt Charman (and later revised by the Coen Brothers), Bridge of Spies follows Donovan as he defends Abel (Mark Rylance) up to the Supreme Court, and later negotiates a prisoner swap in East Berlin after an American Air Force pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down behind Soviet lines. The writing is as stoic as Donovan, who Hanks plays as a regular neighborhood guy just trying to ensure everyone gets a fair shake—but behind the façade is real shrewdness. Donovan’s work as a negotiator was fascinating, but Spielberg and Charman frame him as a thin bulwark against the American government’s attempts to work around its own supposed ideals at the height of the Cold War.
In another director’s hands, Bridge of Spies might have a more paranoiac edge, but this is Spielberg, though certainly in minor key, with a jarring Thomas Newman score taking the place of the expected swelling strings of John Williams (it’s the first Spielberg film Williams hasn’t scored since The Color Purple). Rylance plays Abel not as a figure of menace (he was, in fact, a fairly low-level operative) but of reserved calm; every time Donovan asks him if he’s worried about the possibility of being executed, Abel flatly asks, “Would that help?” As he defends his client and cites his constitutional privileges, Donovan is openly disdained by a judge and prosecutor intent on rapidly convicting Abel; Spielberg draws a sly parallel with the much grander but effectively similar Soviet show trial given to the captured pilot, Powers.
The film is at its slowest when it’s dealing with the backlash Donovan suffered at work and at home—Alan Alda and Amy Ryan fill out thankless roles as his boss and his wife, tutting over his dogged pursuit of justice. Far better is Scott Shepherd as Hoffman, the CIA agent tasked with ordering Donovan to East Berlin, where he presented himself as a private citizen seeking to organize a prisoner swap with the Soviets. Donovan spoke for the U.S. where the country could not, secretly acknowledging East Germany and the USSR as diplomatic partners at a crucial point in the Cold War, and Spielberg has as much fun as he can with that strange irony. Hoffman could be a terrifying man in black keeping Donovan on a tight leash, but Bridge of Spies is free of those dramatics, and Shepherd instead plays him as another frustrated bureaucrat trying to accomplish a limited task (the retrieval of Powers) as quickly as possible.
With each walk-on part, Spielberg underlines the slow creep of tyranny in a system that supposedly eschews it. Hoffman needs Powers back, so he ignores the plight of another imprisoned American, a graduate student arrested in East Berlin. Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) needs Abel in jail as quickly as possible, so he waves off Donovan’s complaints of warrant-less searches. Powers gets in his U-2 spy plane because he’s ordered to (his capture is the film’s one bravura action sequence) even as it’s made clear to him that the U.S. military will disavow his actions if he’s caught. When Donovan sits down with his Soviet counterpart, their aims are exactly the same—the only difference, as he keeps trying to remind everyone, is that America is supposed to abide by the rights it grants in its Constitution.
It’s on the hokey side, for sure, but Spielberg mostly reins in his tendency toward thuddingly obvious symbolism, although he does go a bit overboard in the film’s final, triumphant scenes. Hanks helps by playing Donovan with gentle charm and humor, rather than as a crusading patriot; his subtlety is matched at every turn by Rylance, whose supporting work would likely be noticed by Oscar voters if it wasn’t so admirably low-key. Donovan’s victory is small but palpable; still, we know the ideals he fights for haven’t always recurred in our country’s history as a foreign power. Bridge of Spies is a tale of American exceptionalism, but a quietly cynical one—and those are always the wisest kind.