Spielberg masterfully builds Cold War tension

Tom Hanks, right and Mark Rylance star in "Bridge of Spies."
Tom Hanks, right and Mark Rylance star in "Bridge of Spies." Dreamworks

What It’s About

The Cold War’s turbulent stakes are revived in “Bridge of Spies,” director Steven Spielberg’s gripping account of an international political prisoner exchange.

After Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, a deal commences between the Russians and U.S. to trade Powers for imprisoned Russian spy Rudolf Abel. Attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is recruited to negotiate the exchange, and eventually travels to Berlin in 1962.

This is a time when nuclear war was a real threat, and trust was non-existent. Dealing with a Germany now divided by a wall, and the Soviets, is tricky business for Donovan, and things can go terribly wrong quickly, at every juncture.

This historical drama takes a while to gain momentum, but once it does, a suspenseful tale of espionage, Superpower countries’ muscle, and the humanity behind national causes emerges.

Like he did in “Lincoln” and “Munich,” Spielberg diligently dispenses details, and makes them interesting. He’s aided by a crackling screenplay written by Joel and Ethan Coen (yeah, those Coen Brothers), and Matt Charman, laden with warm and humorous moments. In addition, Spielberg has enlisted his expert cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and a crackerjack cast.


Tom Hanks just makes every movie better. In his fourth collaboration with Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan,” “The Terminal,” “Catch Me If You Can”), Hanks recalls James Stewart as the noble, earnest attorney whose sharp legal — and people — skills prevent calamity. It’s a perfectly calibrated performance.

The real standout, however, is Mark Rylance, the acclaimed Tony-winning British stage actor, as the pragmatic Russian spy with a penchant for painting. He’s certain to be on the short list for supporting actor awards.

The tenacious cast includes Amy Ryan as Donovan’s concerned wife, Alan Alda as his law firm chief, Austin Stowell as Frances Gary Powers and Jesse Plemons as a fellow pilot.

What Works

Spielberg confidently builds the tension, and the situations’ intrigue is genuine. He makes certain that the people involved appear very relatable and real.

What Doesn’t Work

This isn’t exactly a drawback, but Spielberg’s patented sentimentality is evident in the final frames.

As for presenting a slice of life as we knew it 50-some years ago, mission accomplished.

4 stars out of 4

  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Alan Alda
  • Rated: PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language
  • Length: 2:22