“I am an Irish, and you are from Germany. What defines us both as American? It is the Constitution, that is the only rule book.” That’s James B Donovan (Hanks) speaking, and once again Steven Spielberg hits the nail on the head with a film so politically astute for its times.
The rest of the work is done by the Coen Brothers, who rewrote the screenplay to show up the absurdity of the Cold War and its politics, in all its comic farce as well as tragedy.
However, given that the film is a Spielberg, the politics comes with dollops of morality and sweet sentimentality, all coming together in the person of — yes — Tom Hanks.
But the man we meet first is Rudolph Abel (Rylace), who is painting his own self-portrait with a mirror besides him in one of the film’s most understated scenes. What does he see when he sees his image is a question uppermost on our lips, as it is soon evident that Abel is being followed by FBI agents. He is arrested soon after he has retrieved a secret message from a coin stuck to the bottom of a bench in a park.
It is then that insurance lawyer Donovan enters the picture. Abel has to be given a trial, if only to show to the world the American way of justice, and the task falls upon Donovan, who was a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials.
Everyone is convinced of Abel’s “guilt”, and the trial is intended to be no more than a show till Donovan comes in and argues that the law be followed both in letter and spirit. Even as he faces protests and attacks, Donovan manages to secure for Abel 30 years of punishment rather than instant execution.
By now, a US pilot on a reconnaissance mission, Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), has got captured in Russia while an American student has been held in East Germany, balancing out the Cold War scales. The government turns to Donovan to manage a prisoner swap.
Spielberg cringingly juxtaposes the two scenarios against each other, to make its point that both countries have spies, who are just doing their duty. That includes one scene of Donovan climbing up the Supreme Court steps to get reprieve for Abel even as Powers is getting into the cockpit for his mission over Moscow. Powers’s young pilot who doesn’t understand much to Abel’s ageing agent, almost a kindred spirit to Donavan who has seen it all, is another expected tool.
It is when Donovan lands in West Germany and tries to negotiate his way, as a private citizen, through the Cold War’s seen and unseen borders that the film really blossoms. The scene of the wall coming up in Berlin is harrowing, and Spielberg brings his level of historical accuracy into scenes that are not even really crucial for the story.
Donovan or rather the film deploys wry humour to get its point across. One of its best gags is the cold that afflicts all its chief protagonists passing through the boundary lines of that era. Cold War, isn’t it?
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Austin Stowell, Alan Alda
Directed by Steven Spielberg