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Spielberg's 'Bridge of Spies' delivers suspense and compelling historical perspective
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Tom Hanks, center, in "Bridge of Spies." - photo by Josh Terry
Bridge of Spies is a Cold War film that is less concerned with the USA/USSR dynamic than the ethics of the spy game in general. It presents the real-life story of a high-profile prisoner exchange in Germany shortly after the erection of the Berlin Wall.

The Soviet spy is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an artist in Brooklyn who has been collecting classified American nuclear information. The first half of the film focuses on the efforts of an insurance lawyer named James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) to defend him during his criminal trial.

The American spy is Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a young pilot shot down over Soviet airspace while taking surveillance photographs at 70,000 feet. When it becomes clear that a spy swap might bring the American pilot home, Donovan is dispatched covertly to handle the negotiations.

Bridge of Spies is more focused on drama and intrigue than the kind of stunt work and action set pieces weve become accustomed to via James Bond and Jason Bourne. But in the hands of Steven Spielberg, thats no concern. The veteran director strikes a seasoned balance of tension, action and wit that keeps the film moving at just the right pace.

The moral implications are obvious. As Donovan wrestles to provide Abel with a fair defense against the pressure of the entire nation, the audience wrestles with the morality of offering rights to noncitizens who have conspired against the safety of U.S. civilians.

With a background in insurance law, Donovans involuntary appointment to Abels defense is practically a setup, and his honest efforts make him a national pariah. His later experience provides further examination of the seedy alleys where politics and national security cross paths.

Spielberg knows that it is impossible to watch this narrative play out without applying it to the terrorists and suspected terrorists of the 21st century. Whats most interesting about this passage is that he never tries to make Abels guilt anything less than obvious. There is no 12 Angry Men ambiguity here, and only Rylances charm makes Abel appealing at all. The issue is entirely a matter of principle.

Once we move on to the story surrounding the exchange, though, Spielberg lets Donovan step off his soapbox a bit, and the audience becomes compelled by the sight of the litigator crossing the brand-new Iron Curtain in order to execute a mission his own government is prepared to disavow.

Historical legitimacy and strong execution help Bridge of Spies create a genuine human tension that even excellent action films such as last summers Mission Impossible fail to achieve. Donovan is no Ethan Hunt. There is no Alec Baldwin proclaiming him the literal manifestation of destiny. Whether hes getting mugged by a group of East German street toughs or getting sold out by a bureaucrat in search of status, the threat to Donovan is very real, and Hanks handles his role with the same in-over-his-head quality that Spielberg coached Harrison Ford to years ago as Indiana Jones.

Theres a sad realization that takes place as you watch this chess match play out. There is no love lost between the two enemies, but there is a basic inherent respect between them that makes those 21st-century comparisons that much more difficult to process. Donovan and Abel develop what could almost be called a friendship by the end of the film. Imagining the same between an American litigator and an ISIS operative is a challenge to ponder.

Bridge of Spies is rated PG-13 for some violent content and profanity, including two uses of the F-word.