This is a movie of two parts in which the former informs the latter while somehow remaining strangely detached from it. This might be due the not entirely compatible pairing of Steven Spielberg as director with Joel and Ethan Coen as co-writers. Spielberg is a supreme storyteller with a heart-on-sleeve belief in the primacy of family and the lofty ideals enunciated in the American Constitution, while the Coens, at their most indulgent, tend to mock and bite the hand that feeds them. It opens in 1957, as tensions between the West and the Communist bloc are rising precariously. A brilliantly shot sequence has a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), being pursued by CIA agents in the subway and on the streets of New York. After he is finally arrested, a humble insurance lawyer, James Donovan (Tom Hanks), is appointed as his defence counsel.
Donovan is not expected to make waves, but he goes by the book and, despite the general public’s hostility, is driven by those shiny ‘American values’ with which Spielberg is so enamoured. Hanks, with his knitted brow, is typically undaunted as the upright man who won’t be stood over, but though based on real events, he seems less convincing when the stage is relocated to the Cold War’s front line. As the infamous Wall is being constructed, a U2 surveillance pilot and a Yale economics student are held captive in East Berlin. Donovan is assigned the task of negotiating a trade of ‘their guy for ours’ and sent to the divided, wintry city to deal as an independent go-between with Russians and Germans (‘your countries’ names are too long,’ he says after grappling with the unabridged USSR and GDR). The intrigue and dark theatricality of these scenes have more of the Coens about them (all that’s missing is Christoph Waltz turning up as an interrogator), including an episode of terrific impact when Donovan witnesses a shooting from a train. Spielberg’s positivity reasserts itself in the patriotic ending to a film of tension and gritty realism, notwithstanding the title’s oddly undergraduate pun.