As a film that uses history to tell us something about our present-day circumstances, Steven Spielberg‘s “Bridge of Spies,” which premiered Sunday night at the New York Film Festival, operates most successfully in its first half, when the director (working from a based-on-true-events screenplay by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen) equates anti-Soviet hysteria during the 1950s with the recent War on Terror, tracking citizens’ willingness to start ignoring the Constitution once they’ve been sufficiently panicked.
It’s 1957, and the Cold War is at its chilliest when successful insurance lawyer (and onetime Nuremberg prosecutor) James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, is assigned to defend suspected Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by Tony winner Mark Rylance).
The evidence against Abel is damning, but the government wants to show the world that even its enemies get the right to a well-represented day in court. This despite the fact that Donovan is given insufficient time to prepare and his concerns about the legality of the warrants used against Abel are dismissed by Judge Myers (Dakin Matthews).
The only leeway that Donovan gets in the entire case, in fact, is when he visits Myers at his home to plead that Abel not be given the death penalty — partially as a humanitarian gesture, but also in case the United States might ever need a prisoner to swap with the U.S.S.R.
That opportunity soon presents itself when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell, “Whiplash”) is shot down on a reconnaissance mission, and soon Donovan finds himself once again pressed into service; the CIA sends him to East Berlin to negotiate a swap, although officially the government pretends to know nothing of this mission.
It’s up to Donovan to use all his lawyerly skills to negotiate the trade of Abel for not just Powers but also Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers, “The Bay”), an American graduate student who has found himself on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.
The segment of the film dealing with Donovan’s legal defense of Abel — against the wishes of both his firm and his family he took his objections to those search warrants all the way to the Supreme Court — makes for a powerful parable about the era of Snowden and Guantanamo, where “but” and “except for” started creeping their way into discussions about civil liberties and right to trial. (Donovan’s testimony to SCOTUS even mentions that Abel’s status exists in a gray area, since he’s neither a criminal nor a captured military combatant.)
This portion of the story turns out to be the first and most successful of the three movies unfolding in “Bridge of Spies.” Once Donovan goes to Europe to make the swap, the plot downshifts into fairly standard cloak-and-dagger stuff, which is entertaining but not nearly as provocative as what came before it. And then, as the capper, we get Spielberg (abetted by the screenplay and another unsubtle Thomas Newman score) unable to resist hitting the same nail on the head three or four times to make sure that everyone in the back row got the message.
For instance: Once the trade has been set up, and everyone is waiting to see if the Soviets will hold up their end of the bargain, Abel tells Donovan that he has sent him a gift. Donovan replies, “I wish I had thought to give you something.” At this moment, another director might cut to a look between the two that would convey volumes, or maybe just have Abel say something along the lines of “We’re even.”
But no, the audience can’t be trusted here to make the connection: Abel has to actually say that what Donovan has done for him was, in fact, already a gift. And then he says it again. Meanwhile, the movie spends time setting up situations like an apparent romance between Donovan’s daughter (Eve Hewson, “The Knick”) and his young associate (played by Billy Magnussen) before completely jettisoning them to a cutting-room floor somewhere.
If you can overlook the three or four endings of “Bridge of Spies,” each more overdone than the last, there’s a lot to like here, starting with a masterful, wordless sequence in which Abel is pursued by federal agents throughout New York City. There’s a great opening shot of Abel; the camera pulls out and shows us it’s his reflection in a mirror, before pulling further away to show Abel sitting between a mirror and a self-portrait he is painting, letting us know that this character is always going to remain something of an enigma.
Janusz Kaminski’s photography feels true to the period without ever indulging in the flashy pizzazz we’ve come to associate with 1950s-themed diners, and he saves the showy moves — re-creating propaganda-film camera set-ups during Powers’ public show trial, putting on a fish-eye lens when Donovan feels that everyone in his neighborhood is coming out against him — for the right moments without ever overdoing it.
Donovan is a classic Hanks role: upright, intelligent, compassionate, armed with a sense of humor. It’s not revelatory work, by any means, but it’s a solid turn from an exceedingly capable leading man. Casting director Ellen Lewis and her team have assembled an array of Cold War faces, pinched and jowly when necessary, that give the film the feeling of the era.
“Bridge of Spies” operates best when it remembers that those bridges run both ways, and that both the United States and the Soviet Union were playing the exact same game on different sides. Its plea for common sense and equanimity in international relations is important to hear, but like all messages, it lands better when delivered with a lighter touch.