Three-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg will almost certainly collect a pair of additional Best Picture and Best Director nominations for the thoroughly engrossing, old-school Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies,’’ which premiered to a standing ovation Sunday night at the New York Film Festival and is based on a true story.
In Spielberg’s best film since “Saving Private Ryan,’’ his frequent collaborator Tom Hanks emerges as a strong Best Actor candidate for his flawless performance as James Donovan, a Brooklyn lawyer who bravely risked his life to covertly negotiate the release of Francis Gary Powers, an American spy captured after his plane pilot was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960.
Several years before that, Donovan was demonized in the press for his aggressive legal defense of an American-captured Soviet spy whose many names included Rudolf Abel — brilliantly played by British theater legend Mark Rylance, who may lead the field for Best Supporting Actor.
Donovan loses the case but gets Abel spared from execution by arguing that imprisoning him instead may provide “insurance” for future American spies — and indeed, the Department of State and the Central Intelligence Agency come calling on Donovan to work out a swap after Powers is captured with key secrets.
The film does a fantastic job of capturing 1950s New York in its first half, and surpasses that when Donovan travels (with no official authorization or protection whatsoever) to East Berlin, where he witnesses would-be refugees being gunned down on the newly erected wall dividing the German capital.
Also worthy of serious awards consideration is the script by British dramatist Matt Charman and filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. It subtly balances arguments that we need to provide civil liberties to even our enemies with Hanks’ dry humor — as his character navigates Cold War hysteria at home as well as the political agendas of the Soviet and East German governments, which become tangled when the East Germans arrest an American student on spy charges.
Spielberg again shows why he’s one of the best directors, working with a mostly silent opening sequence depicting Abel’s capture, and ratcheting up the suspense when Donovan is plunged into what seems like a nearly impossible mission armed with only his wits. “Bridge of Spies” is surefire Oscar bait — and will probably reach an even larger audience than Spielberg’s most recent film, “Lincoln,” when it hits North American theaters on Oct. 16.