TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Steven Spielberg's latest film, "Bridge of Spies," opened over the weekend to nearly universal acclaim. Set during the Cold War, the movie stars Tom Hanks as an American attorney who finds himself suddenly plunged into the world of espionage. Our critic at large, John Powers, admires the film and its treatment of the Cold War.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: If you're old enough to remember the Cold War, you probably miss it. Things were just so neat back then. Granted, we lived under the threat of being vaporized by nukes, but at least the enemy seemed rational and disciplined. You could make deals with the Soviets, unlike today's beheaders and suicide bombers. Of course, that whole period is still with us in many ways, starting with Vladimir Putin's recent machinations. He clearly misses the Cold War, too.
There are TV series like "The Americans" about Ruski (ph) spies in Reagan-era D.C. and an endless stream of bios, like David Talbot's revealing new book on Allen Dulles, that cobra in a suit who ran the CIA from 1952 through the Bay of Pigs. As it happens, Dulles turns up briefly and too warm-bloodedly in "Bridge Of Spies," Steven Spielberg's highly entertaining new thriller, which excavates a tiny corner of that history, without over-inflating its importance. With the red scare safely behind us, this real-life story takes us inside the prosaic details of that era's bargaining and posturing while also viewing it with historical perspective. It's above the Cold War, rather than caught within its passions.
Beginning in a 1957 New York throbbing with anti-communist paranoia, it stars Tom Hanks as high-powered attorney James B. Donovan. The U.S. government asks Donovan to defend the captured Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, who's played by Mark Rylance with an irony as dry as a martini in Death Valley at noon. The intent is to show the world that Americans will give Abel a fair defense, before, of course, executing him. But Donovan defends Abel so well that he avoids the death penalty. And so a few years later, the CIA asks him to arrange the swap of the imprisoned Abel for the captured American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers who was shot down over the USSR.
Donovan flies off to Berlin just as the wall is being built - a milieu and mood that Spielberg does a superb job of recreating. Donovan's there to do what he does best - be a bulldog of a negotiator. Here, he's in east Berlin haggling with a slippery-Soviet attache who's refusing to trade Powers for Abel.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDGE OF SPIES")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) This is not an equitable trade, sir.
TOM HANKS: (As James Donovan) But what you're saying is if Powers has given up everything he knows, then Moscow would trade. Why wouldn't they? As for Abel, if he dies in an American prison, the next Russian operative who gets caught might think twice about keeping his mouth shut. And you never know, Abel might want to see the sky again and decide to trade Russian secrets for small American favors.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) How can you know this? We little men, we just do our jobs.
HANKS: (As James Donovan) Like lieutenant Powers, he's just a pilot.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He was making photographs from 70,000 feet when he was shot from the sky. People in my country consider this an act of war.
POWERS: Now, "Bridge Of Spies" is, in many ways, an old-fashioned Hollywood picture, which I mean as a compliment. Donovan is the kind of everyman hero - moral, but a tad prickly, wry, but no pushover - once played by Henry Fonda and James Stewart. In both image and manner, Hanks is their heir, and having already saved Private Ryan, he now makes this Irish-American lawyer sturdier than the Berlin wall. Like the film itself, Hanks' Donovan is solid and measured. Yet, for all its retro pleasures, the movie feels fresh in its take on the Cold War.
For starters, this is surely the friendliest portrait of a Soviet spy in Hollywood history. Although Rudolf Abel was a devout communist, "Bridge Of Spies" portrays him as being as honorable as Donovan. The two enjoy a mutual respect and share an equal disdain for the cynics who populate both sides, be it shifty commissars or CIA spooks who care only about the mission, not the human fallout.
The movie brings the Cold War alive in another way, too. It's relevant to our own days when terrorism can produce the same knee-jerk stridency that communism once did. In their fear and hatred of the reds, most Americans, including government officials, didn't care whether Abel got fair treatment before the law. Donovan did. That's the point of laws. And he fueled the public's hatred by not just defending Abel, but doing it scrupulously. He believed that America didn't prove its strength by killing off spies without fair trials. It did so by honoring the principles embedded in the U.S. Constitution, even when and especially when it's tempting not to. In "Bridge Of Spies," America's greatest asset in the Cold War wasn't possessing superior information or military might. It was having faith in our values.
GROSS: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.