The 1950s were a strange time in terms of foreign policy. In many Americans’ eyes, it was clear: it was us, or them. Many Soviets saw things in a similar way. It’s an inviting setting for a story about character above ideals; that two nations can rise above their differences and come to resolutions peacefully, if only briefly. It’s a kind of story that’s been done a million times, even during the Cold War itself.
In that regard, “Bridge of Spies” is nothing special. It doesn’t really do anything new with that kind of story setup. Fortunately, though, it uses the setup so well that it’s hard to care that it doesn’t try anything really new.
The story is based on the real-life 1960 U-2 incident, albeit very loosely. James Donovan (Tom Hanks, “Captain Phillips”) is chosen to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, “The Gunman”) in court, and while Abel is inevitably declared guilty, he’s able to dodge a death sentence thanks to Donovan. Meanwhile, an American spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union, and young American pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell, “Whiplash”) is captured. The United States tasks Donovan with a prisoner exchange — Powers for Abel. But when an innocent American student is captured in East Germany, Donovan must decide whether or not to throw a wrench into the whole exchange by trying to save the student.
Tom Hanks plays his usual character, an everyman just trying to do the right thing. What makes the film interesting is how this character, a character we’ve admittedly seen him portray a lot, interacts with two governments who are both at odds with what he thinks is the right thing to do. His old ideals clash with an increasingly fragmented world; one where the best he should realistically hope for is a cold and tense resolution between two bitter enemies.
The two spies are also depicted as normal people instead of patriots. When Tom Hanks defends Abel, he’s agreeable and talkative. He has an actual character, and it’s easy to forget that he’s a spy for the enemy. The conflict only arises when these normal everymen interact with the real patriots around them — people who love their country so blindingly that they forget the compassion that makes us human.
It’s the story of four men, Donovan and the three prisoners, who forget their patriotism, for a moment, to try and resolve a very human issue. While that kind of story has been done a lot before, it really works here. It doesn’t stray too far from that formula, but it doesn’t need to, because it takes a well-worn formula and reminds us why it was so well-worn in the first place: because it really works.