In 1957 Brooklyn, New York, reclusive amateur painter Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) is sat in jail accused of being a soviet informant after having his home raided by the FBI. After refusing to put up a fight, he awaits his trial and is introduced to successful law partner James B. Donavon (Tom Hanks), who has reluctantly taken his case.
The prosecutors, his law-firm partners, the public and even the judge all want Donavon to lose the case, yet after the inevitable guilty verdict, his strong belief in fair representation and the constitution convince him to appeal the conviction and spare Abel the electric chair.
Meanwhile, Francis Gary Powers an American pilot is shot down over the Soviet Union during a secret U-2 spy mission at the same time as an American economics student finds himself on the wrong side of the newly erected Berlin Wall. Donavon has shrewdly predicted this eventuality and begins to negotiate a prisoner of war swap between the two super-powers.