Bridge of Spies Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday.
Apart from that unfortunate time when he played a foreigner with a funny accent (and we’ve all agreed to forget The Terminal exists, right?), Tom Hanks dependably serves as a figure of moral rectitude in Steven Spielberg movies. Saving Private Ryan saw him risk his own life, and that of his company, to rescue a U.S. soldier whose mother had already lost three sons to World War II. His FBI agent in Catch Me if You Can is so determined to nab a notorious con artist that he even works on Christmas Day. But Hanks has never been quite as enjoyably righteous as he is in Spielberg’s new film, Bridge of Spies, playing a character who’s strong-armed into performing tasks that even his own family considers borderline detestable.
The year is 1957, and James B. Donovan (Hanks), an insurance lawyer, has been “asked,” in the strongest possible way, to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), accused of spying for the Soviet Union. (The film, based on actual events, mostly skims past one of the most fascinating tales in the annals of international espionage, involving a little boy who’s given a hollow nickel with microfilm concealed within.) McCarthyism had largely died down by that time, but America still looked upon Communists with sheer loathing; defending one was tantamount to representing a child molester. Nonetheless, Donovan insists on giving his client his best effort, endeavoring to keep him from being executed by arguing that his actions were noble and patriotic, whether or not they benefited the U.S. Good thing he succeeds, too, because a few years later, when an American fighter pilot (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russia, Donovan gets another assignment: Go to East Germany and offer Abel in trade.
Written by Matt Charman and then rewritten by the Coen brothers (who seem to have added a layer of wry humor), Bridge of Spies unfolds with an old-school efficiency that manages to feel classical without specifically aping classic Hollywood movies (as, say, Steven Soderbergh did in The Good German). Not every element works—Spielberg doesn’t seem to know what to do with Donovan’s wife (Amy Ryan), and he loses his way in a subplot involving a college student who accidentally gets trapped on the wrong side of the newly built Berlin Wall. But the duet between Hanks and Rylance, as men on opposite sides who forge a bond of mutual respect, achieves something very difficult: It makes rooting for integrity fun.