Great performances, script cross Spielberg’s new ‘Bridge of Spies’

Between Hollywood’s love of corny, one-sided “good guys vs. Commies” Cold War stories and Steven Spielberg’s penchant for sentimentality, it would be reasonable to dismiss “Bridge of Spies” from the get-go.

But with strong writing (partial courtesy of the masterful Joel and Ethan Coen) and top notch acting from just about all of its players, Spielberg’s latest historical retelling is thoroughly riveting throughout, with a couple of minor hitches along the way.

Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a New York-based insurance lawyer who is given the task of providing a Constitutionally-mandated legal defense for Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy living in the United States. America was at the height of the Red Scare in the late 1950s, so this made Donovan unpopular to say the least.

After an American spy plane flown by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Soviet airspace, the story shifts to Donovan’s efforts to negotiate for the two global superpowers to exchange Abel and Powers in East Berlin just after the Berlin Wall goes up in 1961.

I’m of the mind that legal drama tends to be formulaic and, well, boring. “Bridge of Spies” successfully uses the threat of military conflict and the often times shady tactics of both parties to ratchet up the tension.

Actually, “shady” is putting it nicely. The anti-Communist fear mongering in the U.S. at the time led to Abel’s conviction based on evidence that was gathered illegally. If not for Donovan’s lobbying, Abel probably would have seen the electric chair, and the whole exchange wouldn’t have happened.

“Bridge of Spies” is at its most successful when it challenges the notion that one side of the Cold War was unequivocally nobler than the other. This was a messy, ideological clash filled with deceit from both sides, and the film examines that fairly well.

It does break down a bit in the second half as Donovan has to deal directly with the Soviets, but it’s more respectful than many other Hollywood films in that regard.

The aforementioned script is really what makes everything work. The Coens’ influence is definitely noticeable, with the characters occasionally exchanging rapid-fire witticisms without devolving into Aaron Sorkin levels of obnoxiousness.

Hanks is as capable as ever in his role, while Mark Rylance offers an incredible performance as Rudolf Abel. The Soviet spy is public enemy No. 1, but as depicted by Rylance, he’s the most sympathetic person around.

Unfortunately, Spielbergian schmaltz can only be held back for so long, and “Bridge of Spies” has a bit too much of it at the end. It puts a damper on what is otherwise an enthralling narrative, but not enough to ruin anything.

It’s always nice to be reminded that Steven Spielberg got to where he is for a reason, and “Bridge of Spies” is a good reminder. It’s by no means a cinematic classic, but it’s extraordinarily well crafted and enjoyable all the way through.