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Tom Hanks Saves the World

He's a warm-hearted Cold Warrior in Spielberg's 'Bridge of Spies'

(Video) 'Bridge of Spies' Movie Trailer: “Bridge of Spies” tells the story of James Donovan, a Brooklyn lawyer who finds himself thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA sends him on the near-impossible task to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot.

Rating: PG-13

Run time: 2 hours 21 minutes

Stars: Alan Alda, Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance

Director: Steven Spielberg

Any doubt that Steven Spielberg is our latter-day Frank Capra (and Tom Hanks his Jimmy Stewart) can be put to rest: Bridge of Spies is a rousing celebration of an Everyman empowered by America's can-do spirit of justice and decency, in this case doing nothing less than saving the world.

Based on a true story, the film follows an obscure New York lawyer, James Donovan, whom the CIA enlists to secretly negotiate the release of Francis Gary Powers, the American spy-plane pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Donovan gets the assignment because he recently defended a Russian spy named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), managing to spare him the death penalty (and greatly irking the nation's Red-haters in the process).

To spring Powers, Donovan is authorized to trade him for Abel. And so our unlikely hero finds himself in Cold War East Berlin, horse-trading with the enemy.

Hanks, of course, plays Donovan, a supremely decent man who follows duty wherever it leads him. He has an adoring wife (Amy Ryan) and two worshipful children.

He also has a boss, played by Alan Alda, who likewise thinks the world of him. Alda has portrayed so many grinning villains of late I was sure he would betray Donovan, but no. And that raises one of the most disarming qualities of Bridge of Spies: The film is virtually devoid of bad guys, no matter how hard we hunt for them. Sure, certain parties on both sides are a bit self-serving, but overall the folks who populate Spielberg's Cold War are patriotic types trying to muddle through history without blowing the planet to smithereens.

Bridge of Spies

Courtesy of DreamWorks Pictures

Tom Hanks and Amy Ryan star in 'Bridge of Spies'

The totalitarian institution of communism, on the other hand, gets a good pummeling here. The heartbreak of the Berlin Wall's construction, to say nothing of the brutality with which its no-man's-land was enforced, informs the film's darkest scenes. But Spielberg and his screenwriters (Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen) focus on the people who work under the shadow of that evil empire and endow them with endearing humanity.

The trailers for Bridge of Spies make the film out to be a pulse-pounding, white-knuckled thriller. There are a few tense moments, to be sure, but for the most part Donovan's plan unfolds rather smoothly, if not uneventfully. The most intriguing scenes occur when Donovan ventures into the dark, dismal streets of East Berlin, encountering a surprisingly benevolent street gang and cautious government officials. All of them seem to speak in meaningful riddles.

The cast is uniformly splendid. Hanks is Hanks, which is the highest compliment you can pay a guy. As his quiet, unexpectedly artistic spy-client, Rylance gives the film's most engaging performance. With his soft voice and downcast eyes, it's easy to see why Donovan can't help loving the man, even if he is a damn commie. And along the way we get to meet all sorts of minor characters, every one of them bringing special charm to the proceedings.

Spielberg's vision of Cold War America is laden with the baggage grownups piled upon their impressionable little boomers at the time. Among the film's most poignant scenes is a cutaway that takes us into a classroom where children are being shown the infamous Duck and Cover film, which instructed kids to shelter beneath their desks in the event of nuclear attack to stay safe. As the camera moves in on the face of a young girl, tears streaming down her face, Spielberg lets our elders in on a little secret: We never bought it.

In another vignette, Donovan's son shows him a map he has drawn siting their family home within the blast radius of a nuke dropped on the Empire State Building. Watching this particular scene, I nearly dropped my popcorn: I had drawn the exact same map as a 7-year-old growing up in northern New Jersey in 1962.

I never shared it with my father, though; instead, I hid it under my pillow and endured the resulting nightmare of a horizon blossoming with mushroom clouds.