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During the Cold War, the Soviet Union captures U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers after shooting down his U-2 spy plane. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Powers' only hope is New York lawyer James Donovan, recruited by a CIA operative to negotiate his release. Donovan boards a plane to Berlin, hoping to win the young man's freedom through a prisoner exchange. If all goes well, the Russians would get Rudolf Abel, the convicted spy who Donovan defended in court.

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Bridge of Spies movie full length review - The Bridge over the Torn Curtain...

In the midst of the Cold War paranoia, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) a lawyer specialized in insurance settlement is assigned to defend KGB spy Rudolf Abel, Mark Rylance in a performance that will deserve a few words.

This is less a trial than a tactic to prevent the Soviet Union to politically exploit Abel's arrest: Abel's case must show the world that USA treated him democratically. But that's only a cover, what Donovan ignores. Like so many characters who populated Hanks' filmography, Donovan is a decent man and much more, a professional. He takes his job seriously and when he discovers that much of the evidence was found without search warrants, he even wants to call a vice of form.

So, what we get is a highly respected lawyer, with an Irish name, a respectable family, and a 'Red' who might have pulled a Rozenberg in his actions and be the cause of New York's imminent nuking, in the minds of millions of Americans or kids, constantly brainwashed by these Nuclear mushroom images (you know these 'duck and cover' programs). Naturally, Abel's public image inevitably spills over Donovan who worries everyone from his family to his colleagues, from the prosecutors to the judge, and his zeal doesn't help. That, alone, would have been the premise of a terrific movie, the contradiction of a man who does his job, out of decency and patriotism and is almost treated like a traitor. To think that there were supposed to counter-attack the Russian propaganda is one of these film's many subtle delights and it doesn't come as a surprise, that within this whole paranoid craze, you have these two men who seem to speak the same language.

It is not a friendship in the cinematic sense of the word, but it's a story of respect between two men who know the context they live in, their duty, their limitations, but still, find a 'bridge' of communication, through such simple matters as honor, principles and humanity. Rylance's performance looks like a one-note one, but don't get mislead, this is a man who was trained not to show any emotions, to keep a low-profile, so it's only through his eye-language, and a few words, that you can get to the core of his feelings. He says he's not afraid of the electric chair, but his stoicism is later counterbalanced by the 'although it wouldn't be my first choice'. This is not some robotic spy, this is a human being who's also caught in the requirements of his job. And his attitude, if not the public's, earns him Donovan's everlasting sympathy.

Tom Hanks, as usual, doesn't need to speak loudly his emotions, we can see that from the way he exchanges looks with Rylance, and after Abel's sentence, he pleads to Supreme Court arguing that there's no way, the USA should treat dishonorably a man who's only following a fighter's code the same way that America wished his men would follow the Constitution. There has to be a reciprocity of actions and treatments, not just in the weapon department. And what could have been a terrific climactic speech is only the precursor of the second act of the movie. Of course, there was no way, Abel would be found innocent, he wasn't anyway, so the film had to move to higher levels, and it does.

It's interesting that Donovan worked in insurance, this is a man who made a living out of predicting odds, and in 1957, it didn't take the highest insurance exec to guess one American spy might be arrested once, and Abel could be used as a bargaining chip. His eloquence convinces the judge and Abel escapes from the Rozenberg treatment, and of course, it pays off, as a spy pilot, Gary Michael Powers, is shut down while traveling above the Soviet territory on U-21 plane. Donovan is then entrusted to negotiate the exchange of prisoners, which would've been a formality if it wasn't for a little twist: the arrest of an American student in Berlin while attempting to get his girlfriend to the West Side. When Donovan learns about this arrest, he can't imagine going back to America with only one person. The film turns into a very interesting chess game where Donovan must hit two birds with one stone, he must convince the Soviet and the East-German representatives, understand their motives, express his, and make the timing his ally, rather than an obstacle. It's a heart-pounding race against the clock.

Although Steven Spielberg isn't renowned for being the most subtle director when it comes to emotions, his recent "Lincoln" was a signal that the tone of his movies abandoned their usual sentimentalism to some more mature material. Lincoln was less the noble-hearted hero than a positively Machiavellian tactician, and this is what Donovan is. And he plays the diplomatic game perfectly, learning how to be mild-mannered or firmly resolved, in the middle of a Cold War that wasn't just symbolically cold. This leads to a wonderful climax, whose first element of surprise is to reveal that the film's title wasn't just a metaphor.

Now, I read many comments accusing the film of being another propaganda movie. I would say it's more of Capra-like movie in its spirit. Besides, wasn't Abel the most fascinating character of the movie, and a hero to some extent? Weren't the Americans as eager to hang Abel as a Western mob to lynch a cattle thief, and didn't one of the CIA guys even care of the American student? In fact, "Bridge of Spies" is beyond these considerations, it is less a thriller with two antagonistic sides, than a great character study with two similar men united by their patriotism and their sense of duty. And no matter how different the lifestyles are, two systems making such men possible can't be that bad.