James Donovan seems like an ordinary fellow, very successful in his law firm and well grounded in his ethics. He will be asked to serve his country in a way that strains his sense of what is right and unleashes threats against his family’s safety. Donovan (Hanks) is a true believer in the best sense of the word. He interprets the U.S. Constitution in a way that continually guides him in his practice.
Enter the FBI and CIA and their sometimes questionable operations, and Donovan is asked to negotiate an exchange of prisoners as a private citizen without any official appointments. It seems that this is how deals are negotiated among countries. One (the U.S.) has something another (USSR) wants, but there is an additional complication of an American student being detained on suspicion of spying by East Germany (who also has a stake in the trade). So we have three powers—the U.S., Russia, and East Germany—negotiating a single exchange.
As is typical of Spielberg films, the plot is intricate, somewhat mystifying in the beginning (a phone is answered after many rings, but no one speaks), but ultimately details for the audience every critical element, ending with an uplifting and a gently humorous conclusion. Music by Thomas Newman (Skyfall, American Beauty) and cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List) contribute to the fine production value of the film.
Hanks will certainly be praised for his expertly rendered main character, showing his doubts, certainties, and sincerity in multiple ways. He plays James Donovan, the lawyer who actually was the lead negotiator in the exchange of the prisoner Francis Gary Powers for the Russian spy Rudolph Abel during the Nixon Administration. The real Donovan was apparently a gifted negotiator who always got more in exchanges than was expected.
I was especially fascinated with the actor, Rylance, and the part he plays. As the Russian spy, he delivers pithy, terse pronouncements with a completely deadpan face, such as “The boss isn’t always right; but he’s always the boss.” And “What’s the next move when you don’t know what the game is?” He even warns his lawyer that, “You should be careful” when he makes a risky play. Rylance is not as well known for films, but has received many accolades for his theater work (e.g., Tony awards, Laurence Olivier Theater Awards, and others). I remember him most as Thomas Cromwell in the recent TV mini-series, “Wolf Hall.” Cromwell’s personality was similar to Abel’s in its understated, carefully composed, but succinct observations.
Not much time is spent on Powers (Austin Stowell), probably because he was somewhat unpopular upon his return home because he didn’t end his life when he was supposed to. On the other hand, it was ultimately established that he stood firm and did not reveal any State secrets when he was in Russian hands.
A real-life thriller based on a historical event.
Grade: B+ By Donna R. Copeland