Reverend Ernst Toller (an excellent Ethan Hawke) heads a dwindling congregation at a small Dutch Protestant church in upstate New York. He drinks, far too much, since his marriage collapsed after his son died. Now, Toller mostly keeps to himself; he regrets an affair with the choir director who now won’t leave him at peace, and he seems to struggle keeping his faith.
In the depths of the cold war a Russian agent Rudolf Abel (actually a KGB colonel called Vilyam Fisher, though the movie does not reveal this), played by Mark Rylance, is arrested. The US bar council asks a prominent attorney called James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), who made his name at the Nuremberg Trials but now works in Insurance, to take on the role of defending Abel – they want American justice to be seen to be done before Abel is inevitably convicted and possibly executed.