January 1, 2015 -- Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have teamed up again for another great film to go along with their past memorable collaborations, “Saving Private Ryan” and “Catch Me If You Can.” Hanks is at his All-American best, as a clever, honest lawyer who gets drafted to defend a Soviet spy in the midst of the Cold War (based on a true story).
Nobody does this kind of role better than Hanks. He is the embodiment of American Exceptionalism and decency. He does the right thing, of course, in this film, as a lawyer who resists all efforts to kill his client and to give out confidential information about his client. The key relationship in this film is between the lawyer, James B. Donovan (Hanks) and his defendant, the Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance of “The Other Boleyn Girl”).
As good as Hanks is in this film, Rylance is even better. He plays a character of keen intelligence, honor and dry humor. He earns Donovan's respect. Rylance has relatively few lines of dialogue and utilizes a minimalist acting style. This is one of those rare cases in which less really is more (and not just camouflage for a lack of acting ability). Rylance relays massive amounts of emotional information with subtle, but very revealing facial expressions. It is a wonderful low-key performance.
The scenes between Hanks and Rylance are great, but there are some other good confrontational scenes in the film as well. There are memorable scenes between Donovan and a CIA agent (played by Victor Verhaeghe) who suggests Donovan should break lawyer-client confidentiality in the interests of National Security, and another between Donovan and a hostile trial judge (played by Dakin Matthews). Donovan tells off the CIA agent in no uncertain terms on the one hand, but he very diplomatically spins a compelling argument to the judge as to why his client should not be executed.
While Donovan is unable to win his case for Abel, he does well enough to become a hated man for ably defending the Russian spy. Donovan's wife (played by Amy Ryan of “Birdman”) and his children are very unhappy with the attention the case brings to them. Donovan's family even faces some danger because of the notoriety of the case.
Years later, when U2 spy plane pilot Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down and captured by the Soviets, Donovan gets a chance for a “win-win” negotiation with the Soviets, who are interested in exchanging Powers for Abel (Abel's real name was Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher). Since the U.S. and Soviet governments don't want to negotiate the deal directly, Donovan is offered the job as negotiator, acting as a private citizen, sort of.
In secret, Donovan travels to Berlin to negotiate the deal for Powers with the Soviets. A new wrinkle arises when the East Germans get involved. The East Germans have captured American student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers of “The Bay”). Cold and miserable in Berlin, Donovan loses patience while dealing with spies and politicians who are not what they seem to be.
The CIA is not interested in Pryor, but Donovan is. The Soviets are not interested in Pryor, either. The East Germans are just hoping to use Pryor to get a seat at the table with the superpowers. On his own, Donovan, who has no patience for these political games, rolls the dice and makes the two-for-one pitch he wants to the East Germans, hoping the Soviets will go along.
The tension in the story rises as the time for the exchange comes closer. There is also plenty of drama in the story as well as some humor. The compelling screenplay was written by Matt Charman, with lots of help from Ethan and Joel Coen (“Fargo”). This is the best film I have seen this year so far. It rates an A.
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