The art of knowing when to swap…
In 1957, with the Cold War at its most ice-bound, Soviet spy Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested in New York by the FBI. Reluctantly, lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) agrees to defend him, arguing in court that Abel’s no traitor but a brave man serving his country. The outcome of the trial sees Donovan incur widespread public hostility…
But then US pilot Gary Powers is shot down over Russia in his U-2 spy-plane – and Donovan, yet more reluctantly, is persuaded by the CIA to travel to East Berlin and negotiate a swap, though with no official government backing. At which point, just to complicate things further, the Berlin Wall goes up – and a naïve American student, Frederic Pryor, is trapped behind it and jailed.
Donovan conceives an impossible notion – a two-for-one swap. All he has to do is somehow persuade the CIA, the Soviet government and the East German government – all with their own conflicting agendas – to go along with him…
It’s fascinating to imagine how John Le Carré might have handled this real-life spy-swap story. But this is Steven Spielberg – so for all the treachery, bad faith and compromise involved, we still fight through to an upbeat ending.
Hanks, his furrowed brow and bewildered eyes offset by the firmness of his jaw, is as good as he’s ever been as a man determinedly pushing his concept of justice against near-insuperable odds. But he’s almost out-acted by Rylance, whose Abel is a wonderfully sly portrait of a gifted man concealing his intelligence behind the drabbest of facades. “You don’t seem worried,” Donovan remarks as the prosecution demands the spy’s death. “Would it help?” comes the deadpan response.
Spielberg skilfully captures the paranoid mood of the era and the barbed political labyrinth Donovan has to negotiate in trying to reconcile all the mutually suspicious interests involved. The tension of the climax on Berlin’s wintry nocturnal Glienicke Bridge, snipers poised on all sides, is utterly nail-gnawing.
To collaborate on British playwright Matt Charman’s original script Spielberg called in the Coen brothers, no less, and their sardonic touch makes itself relishably felt – take the scene in East Berlin’s Soviet Embassy where Donovan’s confronted by the phony bunch cobbled together as Abel’s ‘family’, all headscarves, expostulations and theatrical weeping fits. The film’s only disappointment is Amy Ryan, stuck with the ‘worried but supportive wife at home’ role.
5 out of 5
bridge of spies
Political intrigue abounds as Spielberg grippingly recreates a famous real-life spy-swap case of the Cold War, with both Hanks and Rylance on top form.