Synopsis: Based on the true story of an American lawyer who travels to Berlin during the Cold War on a secret diplomatic mission to arrange the swap of a Soviet spy he defended in court for a captured US spy pilot.
Like many cinephiles, I get swoony over old movies. I also like new movies that *feel* like old movies. Which brings us to Steven Spielberg’s latest, Bridge of Spies. It’s a throwback treat, moody and full of taut suspense. Cinematic American hero, Tom Hanks, afire with decency, plays the lawyer (James Donovan) charged with defending the Soviet spy (Rudolf Abel) played with alacrity by theatrical chameleon, Mark Rylance.
We re-visit mid-twentieth century America and the espionage case that roiled a Soviet- fearing government and public. Gobs of money were obviously spent to replicate the times, from infrastructure to doo-dads. It looks like Spielberg may have time-machined his cast and crew back to a United States that had yet to shake off the 1950s and a Berlin that hadn’t yet crawled out of World War II’s rubble. The Americans inhabit the conformity and formalism of their wardrobes; the men in G-man hats and suits and ties, the women in buttoned-up blouses and swoopy skirts — even lounging at home. Casual wear had not yet been invented. The poor East-blocers make do with drab uniforms and ragged coats.
The film begins with a lesson in spycraft. Mark Rylance poses as a painter while picking up US government secrets. We see him dissembling a coin back at his studio. I’m thinking: Getting at the chocolate in that coin shouldn’t be so difficult, Mark. I mean the guy is using tweezers and a magnifying glass. Lo & behold, it’s not precious candy but an origamied note in code. The action picks up when the feds bust into his place. Get ready for Mark to steal every scene he’s in; he stays cool as a cucumber. You know the man who won our hearts as Olivia in Twelfth Night can handle whatever is thrown at him.
But dammit, the guy has met his match because you know who else has nerves of steel and a nimble brain too? National treasure Tom Hanks. He easily embodies the integrity and grit that his lawyer character will need when he is charged with defending the commie-pinko that the rest of America wants sent to the chair — you know, the electric kind. You should also know that Tom is a great family man, solicitous of loyal wife, Mary (Amy Smart) and protective of his young son who obsesses over the Bomb and his teen daughter who can’t find a date. As if! In real life, she is Bono of U2’s gorgeous daughter!
During the spy trial, various CIA-types attempt to intimidate Tom into violating attorney-client privilege. As if! Tom gives them an impassioned lesson in our Constitutional rights and what it means to be an American!
Legal stuff ensues and then some action…Tom is shuffled off to Berlin to arrange a swap: the Soviet spy for American spy pilot, Gary Powers, who was shot down over Soviet air space. Earlier in the film we see his recruitment and training and he comes off as some sort of clueless doof. Don’t worry about the swapees, because Tom is the one in danger. He is stalked by East German and Soviet baddies and, even worse, he is mugged of his posh NYC woolen coat by Aryan punks. And he has a cold. He needs to close the deal –somehow– and get back to his family and the kind of central heating only the good old US of A can deliver.
Corruption and skullduggery swirl around Tom, but he remains resolutely decent as he uses his deft mind to orchestrate the deal at… the Bridge of Spies.
Thank you, Mr Spielberg, for making an old-fashioned movie new again.
Cut to the Chase: Tom, you hero! You are smooth as ice in scary East Berlin.
Comedy Highlight: Tom’s figurative bar-room slapdown of a G man who attempts to bully him, giving him a lesson in what it means to be a real American.