The true-life story of Francis Gary Powers is tailor-made for a Hollywood film. A gifted Air Force pilot recruited by the CIA to fly aerial reconnaissance missions, Powers was flying a U-2 spy plane when he was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960. There he was tried and convicted for espionage, and spent nearly two years in prison before he was traded for a captured Soviet intelligence officer, one Rudolf Abel, in February 1962. The exchange took place on Berlin’s Glienicke Bridge—an episode that would earn the East-West border crossing the nickname “The Bridge of Spies.”
Steven Spielberg’s drama Bridge of Spies—filmed from a conflated, partially fictionalized history of the U-2 incident written by Joel and Ethan Coen, with Matt Charman—never once mentions the bridge’s nickname. Nor does it celebrate Powers’ courage under fire, or even present him as anything more than a necessary fact in telling the story. Rather, Bridge of Spies finds its heroics in two unlikely places: in James Donovan (Tom Hanks), the lawyer who defended Abel and eventually negotiated the prisoner exchange, and surprisingly, in Abel himself (Mark Rylance).
Donovan is saddled with Abel’s defense after a number of other lawyers refuse to take it on. Just put on a good show for the Russians, Donovan is told. Abel is faced with overwhelming evidence against him, and a nation that would just as soon see him executed; even the judge voices his prejudice against Abel after the jury delivers a guilty verdict. But while Donovan is leery of the notoriety the case will bring him and his family, he also believes that Abel is entitled to a vigorous criminal defense, and he provides one—sometimes at his own peril.
Hanks has spoken the Coen brothers’ dialogue once before, in the disappointing 2004 comedy The Ladykillers, and has appeared in enough of Spielberg’s projects for the director to have something of a telepathic connection with him. In Bridge of Spies, both Spielberg and the Coens get a performance with which they should be pleased. Hanks delivers the Coens’ speeches and asides with a deft, natural touch—that recurring “one, one, one” vocal tic of Donovan’s feels like a Coen special—and Spielberg conducts Hanks’ expressions as if he were sitting in the actor’s head, working the knobs and switches.
Yet Hanks is a tight second place to Rylance, whose soft-spoken performance as Abel is the real heart of the film. Abel seems aloof and frail when we first meet him, but he soon reveals a steely backbone and a philosophical manner that endears him to Donovan and to the audience. “Do you ever worry?” Donovan asks him, after a tough day in court. Abel replies in a deadpan: “Would it help?” Rylance takes what could easily have been a matter-of-fact character in the story, like Powers, and endows him with nobility and charm. We root for him, even if doing so is unpatriotic.
The film these actors inhabit isn’t quite on the level of its performances. This isn’t a bleak retelling of a pyrrhic victory, like Munich or Saving Private Ryan—and while Spielberg should be commended for not creating a single villain or fabricating any cheap heroics, Bridge of Spies’ deliberate pacing and thoughtful tone does make the film feel a bit like television drama once did, before HBO shook things up. And the film’s ending, though faithful to the historical record, is too tidy and old-fashioned.
But that’s all right. Most other directors would have chosen to make the Francis Gary Powers story instead, and relegated these two astonishing characters to the background. Spielberg and the Coens may have taken some dramatic license with the U-2 incident, but they knew exactly which two facts mattered most.
Bridge of Spies (PG-13) ★★★★✩