The only thing that could make Bridge of Spies, the new Steven Spielberg movie, more agreeably dad-like is if it were set during World War II, which according to stereotype is the conflict of choice for thick historical tomes left to gather dust on paternal nightstands. Instead, the film takes place during the Cold War, which is almost as good — morally murkier, to be sure, but everyone still wears hats and looks very serious — and manages to be half legal drama, half espionage thriller, and all based on a true story (of course).
Bridge of Spies stars Tom Hanks, America's most sturdily benign celebrity, as James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who's recruited first to defend a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, slyly terrific) in court and then to arrange a trade of him for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a square-jawed American surveillance plane pilot shot down over Russian airspace. The whole thing is handsomely made — it's shot by Janusz Kamiński, Spielberg's cinematographer of choice for the last two-plus decades — and old-fashioned in feel, all about men in suits involved in making the world run.
This description sounds full of euphemisms for boring, and yet Bridge of Spies is not. Its unfussy staidness, with the exception of a spectacular plane ejection sequence, is part of its power. It's told through the experiences of a family man who lives in Brooklyn, works in insurance, and spends half the movie powering through a cold, all of which make it a fantastically unsexy spy drama but a deftly powerful movie about how we think about heroism. The only thing James shares with Bond is a first name, and he deals with bureaucracy, not shootouts. Two of the movie's characters have agreed to die for their countries, if necessary, but its protagonist insists no one should be treated as expendable, even the man feeding secrets to the opposition.
The two parts of Bridge of Spies don't line up seamlessly, but they're both about forms of righteousness. In the first half, James is essentially forced to take on the job that no one wants — defending Rudolph, whose capture takes place in a suspenseful, near-wordless opening sequence in which the seemingly innocuous older man is revealed to be picking up coded messages while painting by the water. No one expects or, really, wants James to do more than the bare minimum, but he does, and for his diligence he's sneered at and harassed, his house getting shot up while his wife (Amy Ryan) and children are inside, terrified.
It's James who saves Rudolph from the death penalty by urging the judge on the case to consider his value for possible exchange, and, as if in response, an opportunity comes around when Francis is captured by the Soviets rather than, as he was told, going down with his plane. And it's James who gets sent over to tense, chilly Berlin, freshly split in half by the Berlin Wall, to negotiate an unofficial trade of personnel, navigating three governments with their own agendas and attempting to figure out what everyone really means beneath the bluster and bluffing. The script, which was written by the Joel and Ethan Coen with Matt Charman, shines in this section, with bits of Coenesque quirk coming through in moments in which an East German official presides over a desk full of phones.
So, throughout, does Hanks, who's never glamorous or slick in this role, but who holds firm. There's a story Rudolph tells about someone from his childhood who earned the moniker "the standing man." When he applies it to Hanks' character, it should be cheesy, and maybe it is, but it's also terribly moving. Like Spielberg's similarly dad-like Lincoln, Bridge of Spies is a heart-on-its-sleeve affirmation of American values — not in the loaded contemporary sense of the term, but in the way the country was founded on values we have to work and fight to abide by. It's about a character who insists on treating an enemy combatant with the dignity and due process we said everyone was owed. And in that message, it's not old-fashioned at all.