It is no secret in Hollywood that both Actor Tom Hanks and Director Steven Spielberg are history nuts, and when the two collaborate on such efforts, the results can be stunning (who can forget Saving Private Ryan…). The same happens again here as the actor, the director, and acclaimed writers Joel and Ethan Coen (more noted for their quirky dark stories like Fargo and No Country for Old Men) bring to life the early days of the Cold War in this riveting story.
Based on true events, Hanks stars as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, a mild-mannered family man who is asked by federal prosecutors to be the defense attorney for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. The position is, in the eyes of the feds, an essentially perfunctory one. Abel has been caught red-handed passing government secrets to Soviet contacts. He’s guilty as sin, and Donovan’s job is merely to play the caricature of “defense attorney” so that it will appear that Abel has a fair trial before he is convicted and fried in the electric chair. But Donovan is a man of principle, and isn’t about to be just a place-holder. He vigorously defends Abel, much to the chagrin of the Justice Department, and though Abel is indeed convicted of spying, Hanks is able to convince the judge in the case to sentence the spy (played with sobering complacence by Brit Mark Rylance) to merely life in prison rather than a swiftly executed death sentence. How would Americans look to the world if they merely did as the Russians did–executing spies on the spot after extracting whatever intelligence they could from them–and what if, God forbid, some American was captured by the Soviets? Abel could become an important “prisoner exchange” bargaining chip in the case of such an event.
As if he were a Biblical prophet, Donovan is proved right when, not long after, one of the US’s top-secret U2 spy planes is shot down over Soviet territory and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is taken prisoner. The ensuing exchange negotiations, whom the State Department insists that Donovan conduct without the official sanction of the US government, become more tense and complicated when the Russians insist that they take place in East Germany just as the Berlin Wall is being constructed, with the Russians and East Germans having their own internal battles that Donovan must navigate, including the fate of an American student captured by the East Germans while trying to get his girlfriend back into West Germany through one of the Wall’s few remaining “holes.” The tensions of the intrigue, along with heart-tugging scenes of the panic in Berlin as the Wall goes up and families struggle to get out of East Berlin while they still can, make for edge-of-your-seat entertainment that will stick with you after you leave the theater, particularly if you’re of a “certain age” and have personal recollection of the period.
Here is a fascinating historical drama that features one of the premiere actors of our time collaborating with one of its premiere film directors to make some seriously high-quality entertainment. For adults yearning for something to see at the cinema besides popcorn action/adventures and shallow genre fare, this is a must-see movie that totally fits the bill.