Steven Spielberg knows how to make an entertaining movie, as was made clear when his latest, “Bridge of Spies,” was shown at the 2015 New York Film Festival. Taking the real-life case of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and the 1962 exchange of prisoners involving giving him to the Russians for the return of American U-2 reconnaissance pilot Francis Gary Powers, Spielberg, working from a screenplay by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Cohn, has fashioned an atmosphere-packed thriller, harking back to the Cold War years.
Such a film needs a hero, and he is Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, plucked from a law firm to show an American sense of justice by representing Abel after he was arrested in Brooklyn in 1957 as a Soviet agent. Donovan is depicted as reluctant at first, but taking the assignment in a sense of duty, even though he was at risk from those who would hate him for defending a spy. Donovan does his best for his client and manages to save him from the death penalty by arguing that he might be more useful alive.
That eventually happens when Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down, and of lesser consequence, an American student, Frederick L. Pryor (Will Rogers), is imprisoned in East Germany for no good reason. Donovan wants Pryor included in the deal.
The two most fascinating roles are those of Donovan and Abel. Hanks is made for the Donovan role. He exemplifies good old American courage, fairness and determination, and he comes across as smart and cool as he faces danger and runs into to the maze of East German and Soviet maneuvering and tactics. Mark Rylance is excellent, depicting Abel as very unassuming, fatalistic and trying to fathom what is happening from his arrest to the exchange. Rylance mostly keeps a poker face throughout. Abel enjoys painting and shows appreciation by giving a portrait to Donovan.
Spielberg builds the tension so that, even though we know that the trade occurred, we are carried along in suspense. The director packs the film with the atmosphere of East Berlin in the 1960s, encompassing the infamous wall, the shooting of those caught trying to escape over it and the complications of dealing with Soviet and East Germany representatives. Donovan’s human side is always to the fore, as with his wife back home (Amy Ryan), whom he cannot tell of his mission, but pretends to her and their children that he is an ordinary trip.
There is more than one point at which the story could end. But Spielberg milks the drama to show an incident in which Donavan sees youths in New York scampering over a wall, which brings back the horror of what he saw riding past the infamous Berlin Wall. In a cute subway incident, he is now regarded by a woman staring at him as a hero seen on TV in contrast to her stare of shame with which she viewed him before his heroic role in the trade. Then, of course, come the family reunion and revelation. These typical Spielberg feel-good touches are presumably meant to add to the pleasure of viewers.
There was one bit of the screenplay that annoyed me-- a gratuitous mention by someone of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The point was valid, that the Americans were accused of conspiracy against their own country, while Abel was acting in behalf of his. But in light of the controversy still surrounding the case and the Rosenberg execution, referring to the Rosenbergs as traitors despite that they were never tried for treason but only for conspiracy to commit espionage, and ignoring recent evidence of false testimony by Ethel’s brother against her that points to her innocence seems irresponsible. The point about Abel being a patriot of his country could have been made on its own without the glib Rosenberg reference.
But this gripe doesn’t detract from the effectiveness of “Bridge of Spies” as an expertly-made, engrossing and entertaining dip into a the famous prisoner exchange and the savvy it took to accomplish it. A Touchstone Pictures release. Reviewed October 16, 2015.