While the James Bond franchise was used as a fictional vehicle to show the sexy, daring and heroic (Western) side of Cold War espionage, the decades-long battle actually provides plenty of fascinating real-life stories for filmmakers to mine. In Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg hones his lens on the infamous U-2 incident of 1960, which resulted in a spy swap negotiated not by the CIA and KGB, but by a dedicated Brooklyn lawyer.
Spielberg reunites with Hollywood’s favourite everyman Tom Hanks to bring this often forgotten, though utterly compelling, chapter to the big screen – and the result is fantastic. Hanks is James Donovan, a respected attorney tasked with the controversial role of defending a suspected Russian intelligence agent named Rudolph Abel (a superb turn by British theatre star Mark Rylance). The trial is meant to be a rather flimsy affair to publicly demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to human rights. However, Donovan goes above and beyond the call of duty and puts up a good fight against the prosecution. His courtroom antics make waves in Washington DC and also elicit a few violent attacks on his family home.
Soon the men in suits find another diplomatic predicament for Donovan: facilitating the release of CIA pilot Gary Powers whose U-2 plane was shot down from Soviet airspace during a reconnaissance mission. Senior secret agents tell the lawyer they want to send him to East Berlin, into the literal and figurative cold, to arrange a Powers-for-Abel swap. What ensues is an engaging tale of power plays, second guessing and desperate attempts to avoid political minefields.
With credits such as Amistad and Lincoln to his name, Spielberg has proven he is just as comfortable with indoor talky dramas as blockbuster action adventures. Indeed Bridge of Spies does not pretend to be about explosive thrills and spills, instead it focuses on the human element. Spielberg even includes periods of stalemate in which both parties are literally waiting for the phone to ring, no doubt an unglamorous aspect of sleuthing.
Carried by solid performances and a witty script (input from the Coen brothers certainly helps!), Bridge of Spies is a welcome dose of old-fashioned cinematic entertainment.
Bridge of Spies is on general release now