Steven Spielberg has often been likened to Alfred Hitchcock — they’re among the handful of directors who have become household names, with themes and techniques and personality quirks that resonate across their respective filmographies — but “Bridge of Spies” may be the first time since “Jaws” that Spielberg could be accused of doing a Hitchcock. Not one of the Master of Suspense’s classic thrillers, but the top-heavy international late-career Hitch of “Topaz” and “Torn Curtain.” And there’s Tom Hanks pretending to be middle-aged Jimmy Stewart in the middle of it all.
Hanks is playing New York insurance lawyer James Donovan, a complacent “Mad Men”-era innocent who gets yanked into Cold War intrigue much the way Stewart or Cary Grant found themselves at the wrong end of a runaway crop-duster. The catch is that “Bridge of Spies” is based on a true story, and the real Donovan did find himself defending a Soviet agent in court and later airlifted to East Berlin as a secret negotiator in the U-2 spy plane incident of the early 1960s.
This sounds like a recipe for high-octane huggermugger and loaded MacGuffins, but the movie is surprisingly low on energy if long on smarts. It’s plush, professional, tonally wobbly, and very watchable. Spielberg and his collaborators (Hanks, longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Adam Stockhausen of “Grand Budapest Hotel” fame) wallow in the pleasures of craft. But compact and to the point it’s not, and you may be forgiven if your mind more than once wanders to the laundry.
“Bridge of Spies” opens slyly and well, with a little gray man — a weekend landscape painter haunting the parks of 1957 Brooklyn — arrested by the FBI and revealed to be Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a Welsh-accented spy for the USSR. Those of us who got addicted to the miniseries “Wolf Hall” will envy audiences coming to actor Mark Rylance for the first time and realizing that this human smudge with the flyaway eyebrows can make the doing of nothing seem perfectly, completely riveting. Rylance’s Abel, fastidious and bleak, is the mystery at the heart of an otherwise stouthearted movie, and your hopes rise whenever he’s onscreen.
When he’s not, you’re content to hang with Hanks, who is fine company as the deceptively bland Donovan. Coerced by his law partner (a shifty Alan Alda) to represent Abel in court — to prove to the communists that the US justice system is fair — Donovan finds himself drawn to the enemy spy’s calm and professional pride, and he defends him in good faith even as his neighbors, his wife (Amy Ryan, criminally underused), strangers on the subway, and even the judge in the case (Dakin Matthews) would as soon hang the Soviet from the highest lamppost. The irony, unsubtle but irresistible, is that in a country obsessed with preserving the American Way, Donovan’s the only one living it.
Which gets his family shot at and, in one scene right out of Hitchcock’s “Foreign Correspondent,” dodging a mysterious man wielding an umbrella during a heavy downpour. If Hitchcock’s movies were often about the perils of being “the wrong man,” “Bridge of Spies” celebrates Jim Donovan as the right man for a paranoid time, with native diplomatic skills and a stubborn moral code that renders him superior to the CIA spooks and enemy apparatchiks hoping to use him for their own agendas.
Halfway through, “Bridge of Spies” sends the hero to Berlin to negotiate a spy swap, Abel for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), whose high-tech spy plane has gone down over Soviet territory in the film’s most rousing action sequence. (Something has to go in the trailer.) This allows Spielberg and Kaminski to go all-out with a re-creation of the building of the Berlin Wall, not to mention the perils involved in trying to cross from East to West Berlin before, during, and after. And it puts Donovan in contact with a wonderful rogues’ gallery of rival Russians and Germans, played by actors with great character mugs like Sebastian Koch, Mikhail Gorevoy, Burghart Klaussner, and Max Mauff.
You sense the hand(s) here of Joel and Ethan Coen, who share screenplay credit with Matt Charman and who reportedly took a whetstone to his original script. (It’s the most recent of the brothers’ works for hire, and more successful than last year’s “Unbroken.”) “Bridge of Spies” has a spiky, subversive wit that struggles to break free throughout and that often works at cross-purposes with more traditional themes of patriotism and American exceptionalism. The movie’s a muddle that has been handcrafted by experts, a spy thriller that insists on kindness, and an ensemble piece that knows enough to acknowledge a natural screen presence whenever Rylance is in view.
Most bewildering of all, “Bridge of Spies” is a moral drama driven by an insurance lawyer. That it works at all is a miracle — or would be, if anyone other than St. Steven were involved.
★ ★ ★
BRIDGE OF SPIES
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Matt Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Will Rogers. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, West Newton, suburbs. 142 minutes. PG-13 (some strong language, injury images, brief nudity)
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.