Steven Spielberg’s latest drama Bridge of Spies opens with a revealing word-less sequence. It’s the late 1950s, and the Cold War between America and Russia is well underway. An artist quietly paints a self-portrait, but is disturbed by the sound of a ringing phone. He answers without speaking. He leaves, takes the subway, sets up his easel on a riverbank and paints some more. He is being watched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but what they don’t see is that he retrieves a coin in which he finds a coded message.

Shortly thereafter, the artist, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), is arrested on suspicion of being a Russian spy. James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York insurance lawyer, is enlisted to defend Abel. From the police to his boss, Abel has already been judged as a spy. But Donovan believes in the rule of law and builds a case for Abel that turns out to have far-reaching consequences.

Bridge of Spies is based on true events surrounding the shooting down of an American U2 spy plane in 1960 in Soviet airspace and the capture of its young pilot. The initial sluggish pace picks up when the action shifts to Berlin, where Donovan is assigned the sensitive and covert task of negotiating a prisoner exchange.

Spielberg unhurriedly builds up the tension and intrigue during the three-way negotiations between the Russians, Germans and Donovan. While the filmmaker remains steadfastly correct to the period (East Berlin is convincingly recreated) and sure-footed in his storytelling, the climax feels eked out. The sets are stark, effectively conveying the winter chill as Hanks sniffles through his negotiations, keeping warm with doses of whisky and brandy. As far as espionage thrillers go, it’s a fine watch, elevated greatly by class acts by Hanks and Rylance.