During the Cold War, the Soviet Union captures U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers after shooting down his U-2 spy plane. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Powers’ only hope is New York lawyer James Donovan, recruited by a CIA operative to negotiate his release. Donovan boards a plane to Berlin, hoping to win the young man’s freedom through a prisoner exchange. If all goes well, the Russians would get Rudolf Abel, the convicted spy who Donovan defended in court.
“What makes us both Americans?” asks Irish-American insurance lawyer James B Donovan (Tom Hanks) of German-extracted CIA agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) in Steven Spielberg’s slickly satisfying cold war thriller. Donovan has been charged with defending Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel, a man whose nationality – like his accent – is uncertain (is he British? Russian? German?). The authorities want a show trial, but Donovan is driven by something more: “The rulebook. We call it the constitution.”
It’s this rulebook that will lead Donovan to fight first for Abel’s life and then for the lives of two US prisoners held as bargaining chips on the far side of the newly erected Berlin Wall. And it is this same rulebook which is the film’s true subject, declared by Donovan to be “all that makes us Americans”. While on the surface Bridge of Spies may appear to be the recent history close cousin of Catch Me if You Can, in substance it is closer to the 19th-century drama of Lincoln, its primary concern being a validation of the constitution, albeit with a comedic, Capra-esque Everyman twist.