Furtive flyover: Bridge of Spies reviewed
Based on a true story, Cold War drama Bridge of Spies is Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's first actor/director collaboration since their hit Catch Me If You Can. David Roy discovered whether it's another smash or simply a bridge too far for this long-standing creative relationship between two Hollywood heavy-hitters
HAVING impressed in his titular turn as senior seaman Captain Phillips and played moustachioed Mousemeister Walt Disney in Saving Mr Banks (2013), Tom Hanks returns to the based-on-reality well for his latest role as James B Donovan in the Steven Spielberg-directed Bridge of Spies.
A former navy officer turned New York lawyer, Donovan made headlines in 1957 after being assigned to defend suspected Russian spy Rudolf Abel (played here in a memorably low-octane manner by Mark Rylance) by the New York Bar.
Rather than the box-ticking US justice system publicity exercise the Bar had envisaged, Donovan's straight-as-a-die insurance law specialist actually took Abel's defence seriously.
The real Donovan was in his early 40s during the case – however, Hanks plays him as at least a decade or so older.
The added gravitas really works for his lone crusader, 'fish-out-of-water' antics in a film which where gets to depict an all-American guy standing up for the most unpopular of underdogs.
Although the courts ensured there was no hope of actually getting the tight-lipped spy off the hook, it was no mean feat for the lawyer to have kept the freshly convicted Soviet agent out of the electric chair while all were clamouring for a commie corpse.
As we discover in one key exchange, Donovan is determined to ensure that the US Constitution should protect all those facing legal challenges on American soil – including those who may seek to destroy it – even if it makes him the "second most hated man in America."
"I'm Irish, you're German – the only thing that makes us both Americans is the rule book," he informs an FBI man who is demanding the lawyer break attorney-client privilege.
Written by Matt Crowther and Ethan and Joel Coen, the film centres on a remarkable series of events after the trial: having successfully argued that a live Russian spy might be a shrewd bargaining chip in the event of a US spook being captured on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.
Five years later Donovan was seconded by the CIA and sent to Berlin to broker exactly such an exchange: the incarcerated Abel for downed spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell).
Part of a select group chosen to fly secret reconnaissance missions over the Soviet Union in America's new U-2 spycraft, Powers was under strict orders to ensure neither his plane nor himself should be captured: the former was equipped with self-destruct modules and each 'driver' was issued a suicide kit.
Luckily for Abel, Powers was unable to use either when he was shot down – the latter, it is suggested, because he had a young family at home.
When the Russians duly make covert contact to suggest a trade in East Berlin, Donovan is tasked with ensuring all goes smoothly.
Instead, he almost immediately complicates matters by insisting the deal becomes a 'two-for-one' involving the release of Yale student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), recently arrested by East German soldiers for being on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall.
There follows some amusing business concerning Abel's extended family – an obviously fake and very 'Coen brothers' trio of sweaty, smiley Soviet stooges whose 'legal appeal' the KGB are using as a cover story for his potential release – and Donovan's memorable meeting with a highly strung East German government official.
When the three-way deal is in danger of derailment due to the GDR's inferiority complex with regard to the Russians, the American's legal mind whirs into action – and soon the East Germans are the ones insisting everything goes ahead as planned.
Hanks has a ball playing the lawyer turned spy trader as tired, cold-dosed and determined to conclude his business so that he can get home to bed – although his horrified reaction at seeing people being machine-gunned off the Wall reassures us that Donovan knows what the stakes really are.
Bridge of Spies is quite a talky picture, but Spielberg and his Coen-enhanced writing team manage to keep the story ticking along like clockwork with plenty of humorous moments amid the compelling drama.
Hanks's assured performance and easy chemistry with a superb Mark Rylance ensures the audience remain invested as Donovan spins the various plates necessary to make the climactic spy exchange happen.
When it does, on a deserted border crossing at Glienicke Bridge, you'll be on the edge of your seat.
Bridge of Spies (12A, 141mins)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Jessie Plemons
Director: Steven Spielberg