During the Cold War, the US government wants a proper trial to demonstrate the quality of
American justice to the world, and enlists James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who had
formerly been part of the prosecution team at the Nuremberg war crime
hearings and is now a partner in a New York firm, to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) , a member of a KGB cell operating in the U.S. in the mid-fifties.
Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) encourages him to take the
case, and after Donovan reluctantly agrees, he determines to handle it
responsibly despite the efforts of the CIA, in the person of a pushy
agent named Hoffman (Scott Shepherd), to persuade him to reveal details
of his privileged conversations with Abel and the obvious
bias of the judge (Dakin Matthews) during the course of the trial.
The details of the actual court proceedings are severely
truncated; but the salient point is that while Abel is convicted, Donovan
persuades the judge not to impose the death penalty, arguing
prophetically that Abel might prove useful as a bargaining chip in a
future trade with the Russians. Also significant is the fact that
Donovan’s strong advocacy for Abel has earned him not only his client’s
admiration but the hostility of the public. Even his family, his wife
Mary (Amy Ryan) and two children Peggy and Roger (Jillian Lebling and
Noah Schnapp)—become targets of vigilantes, although they question
Donovan’s work on behalf of the spy.
The East Germans with whom Donovan has to negotiate include a hotshot,
westernized intermediary named Vogel (Sebastian Koch) and the East
German defense chief (Burghart Klaussner)—both depicted as duplicitous,
stupid or both, a juxtaposition director Steven Spielberg posits between people
trying the climb the Berlin Wall intercut with shots of kids in New York
happily jumping over neighborhood fences. Into this story, Bridge of Spies integrates a separate plot thread about the
recruitment and training of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) as part
of a team that will pilot U-2 spy planes over the USSR, culminating in
his being shot down and captured. It all end in tense exchanges at two Berlin bridges that must be
conducted virtually simultaneously to meet the demands of all parties.