Serving one's country never really stops in Bridge of Spies, and the everyday citizen doesn't often have a say in the matter. Set in the late '50s and early '60s, Steven Spielberg's Cold War drama stars Tom Hanks as New York City insurance lawyer James B. Donovan whose firm has dealings with the American government. When the FBI arrests a Russian spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), higher- ups "ask" Donovan to defend the reviled man in the hopes of conveying a rosy portrait of due process to the Soviet Union.
Donovan does so thoroughly and becomes hated in the court of public opinion. This unearths contradictions inherent to demonizing the enemy while living in a democratic state. Such a messy situation doesn't stop the CIA from asking more of Hanks' everyman hero. After an American airman is shot down over Russia during an espionage mission, Donovan must negotiate a swap with shadowy KGB agents in wintry East Berlin.
Bridge of Spies unfolds like a mini chess match between nation states jockeying for control over a situation where there is none. Caught in the middle are good, morally upright people like Donovan who are forced to see the ethical compromises governments make to retain their power. Somehow Donovan is able to subvert this trend by dictating his own terms, suavely maneuvering the different foreign players involved to reach a more beneficial outcome.
What drives Donovan to go above and beyond? It's the respect he feels for Abel, a quiet and calm eccentric who never divulges any information about the Soviet Union's clandestine efforts on U.S. soil. This sincere feeling of admiration stands in direct contrast to the stares of judgment that emanate from those observing from the outside. This is where Bridge of Spies reveals itself to be a superbly crafted story about perception and reality.
With its drama and tension unfolding at such a micro level, Spielberg's latest feels quaint by his past standards. This is the filmmaker who helped invent the "event picture" after all. But the smallness is welcome, especially when the performances by Hanks and Rylance are so measured and intricately woven together by the script from Matt Charman, and Ethan and Joel Coen. Listen carefully and you'll begin to notice patterns in the dialogue that speak eloquently to the themes of ownership and responsibility. The term "your guy" takes on a powerful meaning.
In turn, the climax to Bridge of Spies is thrilling not for its action but the human costs involved. Donovan believes that what he's doing will make a difference, but in the end there's no way of knowing for sure. Hanks navigates a range of emotions in the subtlest ways, proving yet again that he's an actor willing to do more with less. For evidence, look no further than the way he slyly expresses the symptoms of his character's worsening cold.
As usual, Janusz Kaminski's sharp cinematography does wonders with dusty interior spaces and snowy wide-angle exteriors. Textures of a specific time and space stand out like their own characters in Adam Stockhausen's period piece set design. The regular Wes Anderson collaborator has an eye for detail and it shows in Bridge of Spies, all the way down to rotting wallpaper on an East German hotel room.
Still, the film's most impressive virtue might be its quiet, assured confidence in intelligence and rationality. Bridge of Spies, which opens on Friday, Oct. 16, evokes the spirit of our constitution through thoughtful procedure, making it a kind of twin to Spielberg's previous film Lincoln.
For the first time in a while Spielberg seems less interested in the role of the father (as political figure or saint) and more in the personification of individual statesmanship. The pledge of allegiance that Donovan makes to Abel equals the one he makes to his country, and that's truly democracy at work.