Spielberg delivers spy thrills, high entertainment in 'Bridge'

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive

When a historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg is released in October, you expect it to be an awards contender. What you might not expect of "Bridge of Spies" is how wildly entertaining it is.

Working from a too-wild-to-be-true true story - and a stellar script from Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen - Spielberg recreates Cold War tension with a modern moral in a movie that is surprisingly poppy.

It's 1957, the height of the Cold War, when we meet Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a meek man who lives in Brooklyn and is soon revealed to be a Soviet spy. When Abel is arrested by federal agents, the unlikely man tabbed to present his defense is insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks).

Though the trial is largely for show, Donovan performs his legal duties admirably and forms an unlikely connection to his defendant. "You have men like me doing the same for your country," a dutiful Abel points out.

After Abel's inevitable conviction, Donovan is soon called on for another unexpected task. He travels to East Berlin (in the dawning days of the Berlin Wall) to negotiate a prison swap of Abel for an American U-2 spy plane pilot who was shot down.

Though the subject matter of "Bridge" is deathly serious - as is the none-too-subtle moralizing about the importance of due process - Spielberg has also made one his most unabashedly entertaining movies in about a decade. It's thrilling and thoughtful and, surprisingly, quite funny.

Hanks, of course, brings his "aw, shucks" charms to Donovan, but he's also, in hindsight, the moral compass in navigating the madness of two nuclear-armed superpowers squaring off. "We need to have the conversation our governments can't," he tells one negotiation partner.

But it's the supporting performance from veteran stage actor Rylance that makes the film work. It's a difficult task to make a Russian spy both ominous and sympathetic. Expect this performance to be one of several Oscar nominations for the film.

Despite the weighty subject matter, Spielberg delivers the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner. The near 2 ½-hour running time is briskly paced, and he expertly pulls off spy-movie tension (interestingly, with virtually no score).

"Bridge of Spies" isn't just Oscar bait; it's top-notch entertainment.

"Bridge of Spies"

3 1/2 stars out of 4