The best scene in Bridge of Spies is its very first, a seven-minute near-dialogueless sequence in which Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) quietly goes about his daily routine – walking in the park, sitting on a bench, painting a self-portrait – all under the careful watch of dozens of FBI agents.
Abel is a Russian spy, and he manages to receive a small bit of communication despite the constant watch; later, when swarmed by FBI agents, he even manages to quietly dispose of it. When he’s caught, there’s no doubt of his guilt (despite a seeming lack of evidence, at least as presented in the film) from the authorities, the media, or the public. Even Abel himself doesn’t deny the charges.
At the time, during the height of the cold war in 1957, Abel was the most hated man in America. But during that opening sequence, which details the mundanity of his day-to-day existence, his soft-spoken demeanor, and his dedication to his country, director Steven Spielberg is able to do something unusual with the character: we actually sympathize with this Russian spy.
Rylance, too, does a wonderful job with Abel in a carefully understated performance that relies mostly on subtle mannerisms that allow the character to convey through nuance what he cannot in dialogue. His climactic exchange with Tom Hanks’ character is a standout. Rylance is assured of a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the performance, and he might be the frontrunner.
The burden of defending the most hated man in the country falls to insurance attorney James B. Donovan (Hanks), who becomes the second most hated man in the country after he provides his client too-good a defense.
Hanks is effortlessly charismatic as the smooth-talking attorney who, in his first scene, gives a bemused claimant the Kafkaesque runaround when explaining exactly what the insurance company he represents will cover. It’s a skill that will serve him well later in the film.
Donovan managers to negotiate imprisonment for the convicted Abel as opposed to the death penalty, posing the scenario of Abel’s potential worth in the case of an American spy being caught in the Soviet Union, and the possibility of an exchange.
And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what happens when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Soviet territory in a plane that has been gathering photographic data. Powers, Donovan jokes, became the third most hated man in America after not “taking the [suicide] pill” and allowing himself to be captured.
So now we have two prisoners who could be exchanged, and two superpowers who cannot be seen negotiating any such exchange with each other. Donovan finds himself alone on the streets of Berlin at the time of the freshly-constructed Wall, carefully navigating a maze of bureaucracy as he meets with a variety of parties while discussing a potential scenario that no one can officially commit to.
The best recourse for dealing with these kinds of Kafkaesque entanglements? The application of Kafkaesque logic.
The story in Bridge of Spies is a fascinating one, with so many parallel plotlines and tangents that I almost wish this were a TV miniseries with more time to dedicate to everything rather than a 2.5-hour movie that more broadly captures all the basics.
But Spielberg and writers Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen (working on their second historical drama for another director after last year’s Unbroken) manage to cover everything efficiently (only Powers’ storyline seems to get the short shrift), neatly combining elements of courtroom thriller and Cold War espionage and perfectly capturing the irony of the situation at the heart of the film. Only flaw: it goes on too long as it attempts to tie up every loose end.
A more mannered, low-key outing than you might expect from the director, Bridge of Spies is nevertheless a tense and exciting Hollywood version of a John le Carré Cold War thriller. It’s splendid entertainment – and Spielberg’s best work in years.