***1/2 stars out of ****
Steven Spielberg’s first film since 2012’s Lincoln is Bridge of Spies, a cold war thriller that manages a great deal of suspense even though most of the film consists of conversations.
Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer tapped by the government to represent Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a captured Soviet spy. Donovan is expected to put up token resistance, but mounts enough of a defense to earn his client’s respect and save him from the electric chair.
When spy pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stovall) is shot down in Soviet territory and captured, the government wants an unofficial exchange of prisoners. Donovan is conscripted to handle the negotiations in East Berlin just as the Berlin Wall is going up.
Working from a script by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, Spielberg creates a genuine sense of danger in the film’s second half even though there’s very little violence. The script clearly explains the complex relationships between the different characters and governments (even though they’re both communist countries, East Germany and the USSR’s interests are not the same here). The movie conveys a lot of information without ever feeling overly expository.
The real revelation here is Rylance as the Soviet spy. PBS viewers will recognize him from this year’s Wolf Hall, but he’s spent most of his career on stage, not screen. He’s widely regarded as one of the best theater actors of his generation. Thankfully, he avoids the pitfalls that trap some actors, who act as if they’re on stage when on screen, overacting as if they’re afraid people in the back row won’t pick up their emotions. Here, Rylance is subtle and understated. He’d be a good choice for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but his performance might be too low-key for that.
The same could apply to Bridge of Spies as a whole. It’s earnest and has a definite point of view, but it’s not preachy and doesn’t seem like it’s begging for Oscars the way that Lincoln did. It’s worth a look.