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We like it when Steven Spielberg goes to war whether it's the Civil War ("Lincoln"), World War I ("War Horse"), World War II ("Schindler's List," "Empire of the Sun," "Saving Private Ryan") or even a "War of the Worlds."
So how does the master director handle a war where the battles are mostly out of sight? The answer, as proven in his new Cold War thriller, "Bridge of Spies," is: with marvelous restraint.
It's 1957, at the height of anti-Communist paranoia in the United States, when Americans expected to find a Russian hiding under their beds at night. So when the FBI actually arrests a Soviet spy, KGB operative Willie Fisher, alias Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), everyone is eager for a speedy trial and an execution to follow.
However, the government is determined to show the world that the American judicial system is treating Abel fairly. The trouble is finding a lawyer who will act as his counsel. Eventually, a Brooklyn insurance attorney, James Donovan, is persuaded to take the case.
Tom Hanks portrays Donovan, and the role fits perfectly with his Everyman skills. Hanks shows, once again, that he is this generation's Jimmy Stewart an actor who can take an average-Joe role and imbue it with dignity, humility, intelligence and a pinch of gentle humor.
Donovan defends Abel in the face of a biased judge (Dakin Matthews), the concerns of his wife, Mary (Amy Ryan), and notoriety in the New York papers. He fails in getting Abel acquitted and in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court but he does succeed in persuading the judge to spare Abel the death penalty, with the argument that the spy may be a bargaining chip if the Soviets ever catch one of our guys.
Sure enough, the Soviets do catch one of our guys: Francis Gary Powers, the pilot of a U-2 spy plane shot down over their air space. The CIA persuades Donovan to negotiate a trade with the Soviets and their puppet regime in East Germany because he, as a private citizen, offers the U.S. government plausible deniability if things go awry.
Spielberg is working off of a smart script, written by relative newcomer Matt Charman and then burnished expertly by Ethan and Joel Coen, one that builds drama in the smallest of moments. Some of those moments belong to Rylance, whose portrayal of Abel's unflappability when Donovan asks if he's worried, Abel replies, "Would it help?" exemplifies the tension lurking under the movie's cool surface.
Spielberg uses the script to re-create a dark world of international brinksmanship where individuals become chess pieces in an uncertain game and only a character like Donovan, and a star like Hanks, can remind all parties that these pawns are people.
There's only one point in "Bridge of Spies" where Spielberg fails to show restraint: depicting Powers' U-2 mission, an unnecessary dollop of computer-effects work that mostly serves to give the marketing department something for the ads. Otherwise, the director has enough sense to know that the Cold War is best when the action is cool and contained. HHHhj
'Bridge of Spies'
Cold War intrigue is played with smooth restraint in this reteaming of the "Saving Private Ryan" team of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 16.
Rating • PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.
Running time • 135 minutes.