Steven Spielberg's true-story Cold War procedural Bridge of Spies has a wintry chill. The colors are gray and green, the skin tones pale as frozen fish, and the film stock fuzzed and snowy. Our protagonist, James Donovan (Tom Hanks) spends half the movie waylaid by a cold and takes his important meetings huddled over scotch, as if for warmth. It's easy to feel how the US and Russia thought this permafrost would last forever.
The story starts in 1957, the year Donovan was drafted to defend Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) on three indictments of thermonuclear espionage. Abel, a sallow man with a tight frown and lilting eyebrows, was never going to be acquitted. With his client's guilt already decided, Donovan earns his pay merely by yanking Abel from the electric chair. Most people in America, the government included, would prefer he hadn't.
But Donovan, a former insurance litigator, thinks Abel is valuable collateral. In the second act, set five years later as East Germany erects the Berlin Wall, Donovan has a chance to prove it by attempting to trade Abel to the Russians in exchange for Yankee pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), captured on a mission to photograph Soviet territory.
Spielberg elbows us with the hypocrisy: We'd like our man back unharmed, even though we screamed to lynch theirs. Rather than examine the shifting loyalties of film noir, Spielberg purposefully drains the plot of intrigue. We're never in doubt where anyone stands. With the uses and themes established, Bridge of Spies is free to ask a more modern question: Are the good guys that much better than the bad?