The story, based on true events, of the prisoner/spy exchange between the Soviets and the Americans during the height of the Cold War, is less about the swap itself and more about the man caught in the middle of defending a client, and serving his country. Some spoilers ahead.
Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan, a son of Irish immigrants who works as an insurance lawyer for a nice firm. He’s fast talking, all American guy and thinks he’s doing well. That is until his firm asks him to defend an accused Soviet spy in order to show that he’s getting a fair trial. This fair trial is of course a kangaroo court, with Donovan doing all he can to help a man everyone has already labeled as guilty. He shows great compassion to the convicted spy Rudolf Abel. Donovan believes in the constitution and he tries to abide by it.
It is a world of spies and the Cold War is illustrated specifically in two scenes, the first is the students in school, paralleling the court case going on with Donovan, and his kids in the classroom. The kids are learning how to duck and cover in the event of a nuclear attack and stocking up on water. The second of such scenes is the enactment of the Berlin Wall.
The film is a dramatic two and a half-hour, slow-paced drama. It begins with a shaky camera arrest of Abel and switches to Donovan, who dominates the film. Mark Rylance gives a wonderfully calming performance of Rudolf Abel, showing him as a simply a man doing the job his country asked him to do and ready to face the consequences of his capture, whatever they may be.
As we see what is happening with Donovan and his attempts to appeal Abel’s case, going all the way to the Supreme Court, there is a contrast from Abel to Francis Gary Powers and his progression and training to undertake a dangerous mission. His job, and he had little choice but to accept, was to fly over Russia from the Pakistan base and take areal pictures with a fancy camera. What the American didn’t count on were Soviet Missiles which were capable of shooting down a target, even at 70,000 feet. Powers’s crash is the most action packed part of the film and whether this part was true or not it shows why he was unable to blow up the aircraft.
The film is strong and fascinating for anyone who enjoys a story of morality, right and wrong, and political intrigues of the past. The only down side is the unfortunate choice not to have subtitles during the non-English parts of the film. Now while the majority of the film is in English there are instances when the characters speak German, and one or two where they speak Russian and it is not translated for the general public. Tom Hanks did a great job in speaking German and the casting of Russian actors to play Soviet characters was a job well done.
Essentially this film has two acts. The first act is Donovan and Abel, paralleling Francis Gary Powers and what is going on in America. The second act is Donovan being asked by the CIA to go to Berlin, to meet with the Soviets and negotiate the release of Powers in exchange for Abel. Not as easy as it sounds. The film clearly illustrates the kind of man that Donovan is, a decent human being. He’s not a spy, he’s not an expert negotiator. He’s just a simple lawyer who was asked to do the impossible. Another great performance by Tom Hanks.
The funny things about this movie is that despite the fact that the audience knows the outcome of this, the tension is so clear that we begin to doubt if it will all come to fruition. The contrasting images and metaphors are obvious and the repeated joke in the movie wasn’t funny the first time it happened, but remains as a grounding of sorts and helps to show the kind of men that both Donovan and Abel are. It is a spy flick without much spying, and acts as more of a triumphant story of Donovan’s character. The film, in many ways gives us a full circle kind of view.
Final Grade: B