Bridge of Spies

Tom Hanks warms up the Cold War in this taut true-life tale of political intrigue, espionage and spy exchanges, writes Laurence Green.

Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies

An intelligent courtroom drama is transformed into a taut thriller in Steven Spielberg's excellent Cold War drama Bridge of Spies (released nationwide on November 27), based on a true story.

It is 1957 and Brooklyn insurance lawyer and father of three, James Donovan, who firmly believes that everyone, whether friend or foe deserves fair treatment from the justice system is nominated by his firm to defend Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, against whom the Federal Court has a virtually watertight case. "Great- everyone will hate me, but at least I'll lose," Donovan remarks.

Although Donovan puts up a spirited defence, the government seems intent on making sure he is convicted. However, when Abel is found guilty, Donovan pleads for him not to be executed because they might need him as a bargaining chip if the Russians capture an American. And this is indeed what happens when V2 pilot Gary Powers is captured by the Soviets. Donovan is now selected to be the go-between in an exchange of prisoners. But the situation is further complicated when an American student Frederic Pryor is arrested by the East Germans.  Can Donovan negotiate a successful trade-off for both men in exchange for one American?

This historical drama sees Spielberg at the top of his form, skilfully combining nail-biting suspense with illuminating character studies (the film written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen). The opening sequence in particular is a classic reminiscent of Hitchcock at his best, with Abel on a sprightly wild goose chase through the New York subway system. He is on his way to retrieve a secret code hidden in a hollow coin that's stuck to the underside of a park bench, and manages to evade a small army of FBI agents en route. The pursuit plays out to the sounds of the city itself – a spluttering car engine, a snatch of fiddle practice – while Abel goes about his work with a craftsman's composure.

The period details are immaculately recreated, while cinematographer Janusz Kaminski lends the settings (New York and Berlin) a stark and bitter beauty, particularly in the moonlight as dark cars travel through the snow bound streets.

But it is the first-rate performances by the well-chosen cast that makes this movie so authentic and involving. Tom Hanks is most persuasive as Donovan the unassuming family man who is anything but ordinary and makes a world-changing difference by his determination and resolve, while Mark Rylance also impresses as the balding, bespectacled Russian agent, Abel. Fine support comes from Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Eve Hewson, Jesse Piemans and Austin Stowell.

This indeed is a bridge worth crossing.

Bridge of Spies

Released nationwide from November 27 2015

Last modified: November 27, 2015

Written by 4:50 pm Film