In Spielberg's latest, Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer hired by the US government to represent and then negotiate a trade using Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) during the height of the Cold War. Lambasted and misunderstood by a public driven to rabid red fear, Donovan is later instrumental in negotiating for the return of captured American pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) and Yale exchange student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), thanks to his earlier efforts for Abel.
Donovan is a sort of Atticus Finch character, a moral centerpoint in an equally culpable American and Soviet government. The bridge Spielberg builds is not the literal one where human exchanges are made, but the mirror he holds up between the two warring governments. The film's strongest points are in the propaganda-tinted imagery he evokes: Powers on the stand of a foreboding and austere Soviet trial, a classroom of impressionable children devotedly and solemnly reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and the monosaturated rain-drenched scene that borders on noir paranoia. There are parallels that the audience is able to draw even when the two movie's governments willfully put blinders on, such as the coins that are used to hide secret Soviet messages are echoed later in the coins that hide pins slathered in poison for the American CIA to use if captured.
It's appropriate that a movie peppered with strong visual imagery should have a thematic idea of image and how people are perceived. A US judge who glosses over justice is seen adjusting his tie in three different mirrors while talking to Donovan, and characters talk continuously of the importance of it looking as if Abel receives a fair trial over anything else.
One of the few false notes of the movie are within Thomas Newman's soundtrack. John Williams, Spielberg's usual collaborator fell ill and Newman stepped in to take this place. Although Williams may not be known for being the subtlest composer around, there were several moments where Newman's music was so out of place it jarred me out of the movie.
I expected Bridge of Spies to be a well-crafted and performed story given the previous chemistry of Spielberg and Hanks, but Bridge of Spies pleasantly surprises with its undertones of dark uncertainty without hitting us over the head with moralistic overtures. Plot-wise, the story appears uneventful and by the books for its 2 hour and 20 minute clocktime, but the fine performances by all the players involved and the confident direction by Spielberg make his latest collaboration well worth it. Yes, the movie mostly plays safe on every aspect, but that includes the value of Spielberg and Hanks' performance. We're lucky to have the two of them, and furthermore to have the two of them working together consistently.