Mark Rylance, left, and Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies (Jaap Buitendjjik/ DreamWorks Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox)

Mark Rylance, left, and Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies (Jaap Buitendjjik/ DreamWorks Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox)

It recently came out that the story of James B. Donovan, a Brooklyn lawyer who negotiated the release of American spy plane pilot Gary Francis Powers from the Soviet Union in 1960, was almost made into a 1965 movie starring Gregory Peck as Donovan. That would have made perfect sense—the role is about as morally pristine as Atticus Finch. But at the time, with the Red Scare still afoot, the movie studio thought that a film making a hero out of someone who defended a Soviet spy would be bad business. Now we have that movie, the appropriately and thoroughly old-school, Steven Spielberg directed Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks as our avatar for a pillar of American virtue, filling in admirably for Peck.

The movie’s being marketed as something of an edge-of-your seat political thriller, focusing on guns, conflict, and menace, but that is all deception. What it is really about is a series of negotiations between Donovan and various government officials and diplomats, all in the name of standing up for truth, justice, and the American way.

The film opens in 1957 with a long, wordless scene depicting Soviet spy Rudolf Abel being pursued through subways and busy streets by F.B.I. agents. This is probably the strongest part of the film, as it is entirely visual, and the time, effort, and, most importantly, money that went into production design and costumes take center stage.

More than anything else, Bridge of Spies is a great example of how intelligent dramas can benefit from sizable budgets. As it consists almost largely of negotiations, it could probably have been made very cheaply. Same goes for Spielberg’s Lincoln, which cost around $65 million, and Bridge of Spies looks like it cost at least that much—probably more, taking into account the lone “action” sequence when the spy plane piloted by Powers is shot down.

But you can really feel and see the difference when a respectable budget goes into a dramatic period piece. An entire world is recreated, and you get the chance to live in it for a while. That is one of the most essential things a Hollywood movie can do, and it’s rare for that to happen in one that is big on politics, drama, and negotiation, but light on superheroes. In fact, you get to live in two worlds—the first half takes place in Brooklyn, which is brought beautifully and vividly to life, and the second half takes place in East Berlin, which is portrayed in its crumbling drabness.

After Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested for espionage, the plot kicks quickly into motion, and Donovan is drafted by his big New York City law firm to give the Soviet citizen a token legal defense, to pay lip service to America’s belief in universal human rights. Unfortunately, Donovan has more of a conscience than his handlers hoped for, and he manages to help his client dodge what seemed like a certain death penalty. When Powers is taken hostage by the Soviets, Donovan is drafted by the C.I.A. to orchestrate an exchange of Abel for Powers in East Berlin.

The key wrinkle, however, is that when the Berlin Wall is being built in 1961, an American student named Frederic Pryor is arrested by the East German police. Donovan is instructed by the C.I.A. to focus only on Powers, since he holds sensitive secrets that could undermine national security. Pryor is of no strategic value. But Donovan insists on getting both Americans back, and he engages in a complex, exhausting three-way negotiation, with the Soviets and the German Democratic Republic (G.D.R.).

Donovan learns how different the Russians are from the G.D.R., and the scenes where he has to manage the fragile egos of the fledgling state are some of the film’s best. It’s in the small details of the G.D.R. bureaucrats, compensating for their low-esteem on the world stage, that the influence of Joel and Ethan Coen, who reworked an original script by Matt Charman, is most obvious.

The filmmakers have long had a fascination with bumbling characters, and the absurd realities of life in the early G.D.R. provide ample fodder for their humor. The East German bureaucrat is desperate to be taken seriously in front of the American negotiator, showing cracks in his officious façade. The light moments pass quickly, however, as the focus is always on Hanks and the story. There is very little room for anything else. Hopefully, one day the Coens will make a movie about East Germany—it would be a perfect fit.

Aside from Hanks, no other performer has a chance to make much of an impact. The one exception is Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel. A man of very few words, Rylance’s Abel communicates a lot with his expressive, soulful eyes. He comes across as nearly as dignified and honorable as Donovan, the hero.

It’s a film of small moments, and at its best, those small moments can be quite stirring. Near the end, Donovan gazes out the window of the New York train he’s taking to work, and he sees a group of children jumping over a fence. This simple image registers the stark difference between American life and communist control, and Hanks invests this small moment with amazing authenticity and power. It recalls his evocation of complete physical and spiritual exhaustion at the end of Captain Phillips, where with just a glance he conveyed a profound amount.

Bridge of Spies is the most patriotic film since American Sniper, perhaps even more so, as that film hinted at the terrible cost of this century’s endless “war on terror.” And a long, somewhat slow film lecturing us on American justice has its place. It’s just that praising the status quo isn’t nearly as compelling as criticizing it. Viewers will likely be itching to check their phones about a third of the way in, but, to the film’s credit, they’ll probably feel a twinge of guilt for doing so.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg, Marc Platt, Kristie and Macosko Krieger
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen
Released by Touchstone
USA. 141 min. Rated PG-13
With Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Eve Hewson, Peter McRobbie, and Billy Magnussen