There are many reasons to recommend Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies: the Cold War brought to life in vivid, disconcertingly timely ways; the quickstep hugger-mugger of G-men in fedoras tailing a foreign agent on the streets of New York; the noirish intrigue of early 1960s East Berlin, with its military checkpoints, its paranoia, its secret police.
But without doubt, the biggest reason to see Bridge of Spies - based on true Eisenhower-era events - is Mark Rylance, the British actor of TV's Wolf Hall and theater's Jerusalem, as he disappears into the quietly duplicitous role of the man known as Rudolf Abel.
Carrying a British passport and a KGB skill-set, Abel was a sleeper spy in Brooklyn, posing as an artist - toting his easel around, making portraits in his studio - and sending information back to his handlers in the U.S.S.R. The ragged dignity and deep resolve Rylance displays reverberates everywhere - even when he's absent from the screen.
Exposed and arrested in 1957, Abel was given a defense attorney - the government was keen to show that in the United States, anyone, everyone deserves a fair trial, even a traitor. And so Abel, in his cell, is introduced to James Donovan, an insurance lawyer now, but formerly part of the prosecution team at Nuremberg. A family man, brimming with integrity, Donovan is played by Tom Hanks, the lines on his forehead furrowed in noble concern.
"Are you good at what you do?" Abel asks.
Donovan assures that he is, although defending a spy will be a first.
And so an unlikely friendship - an American patriot, a Russian operative - is born.
Using a screenplay polished and honed by the Coen Brothers, Spielberg dips into John le Carré territory (you can't help but think of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold when Donovan looks onto the newly erected Berlin Wall, in the searchlights, in the snow). But that only extends so far.
There is a lot of story to tell here: Abel's highly publicized trial; the threats Donovan encounters for defending him - threats that literally hit home, when guns are fired into the Donovans' living room. There's even a plea before the Supreme Court. And then the whole Francis Gary Powers business: a United States pilot who was captured and condemned as a spy. His U2 reconnaissance plane, with its 4,500mm camera lenses, was clipped by Soviet missiles high in the sky.
Donovan had argued against the death penalty for Abel, advising that it would be prudent to keep the Russian alive, in case the need ever arose for a swap.
And here was Powers (Austin Stowell), a prisoner of the Soviets. Donovan is enlisted by none other than CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to go to Berlin and negotiate the exchange. It's strictly unofficial, and Donovan finds himself moving in shadowy quarters, with shifty company - unsure who, if anyone, has his back.
Things grow more complicated when an American graduate student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), is nabbed by the East Germans and charged with espionage. (The real-life Pryor is an economics scholar at Swarthmore; the details of his arrest back in 1961 have been dressed up and dramatized.)
The gripping finale of Bridge of Spies occurs on the Glienicke, the titular structure that crosses the Have River and linked the East with the West. Donovan and Abel get to spend a few taut minutes on its span, and for all the mounting suspense (what about this other American over at Checkpoint Charlie?), it's great to see the actors together again, exchanging words in the wintry night.
Directed by Steven Spielberg. With Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, and Will Rogers. Distributed by Touchstone Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 22 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes).