Talking about the Cold War often evokes memories of proxy wars, the nuclear arms race, mutually assured destruction (MAD), the domino theory, and the use of spies from both the Western nations as well as the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies taps into the era’s espionage element but it does so in a creative manner that helps set it apart from other spy flicks.
Bridge of Spies’ tone is decidedly tense and slightly shrouded in the allure and mystery of the presence of spies in the United States during the Cold War. However, this film is not a traditional spy movie per se. Rather Bridge of Spies is based on the story of James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who gets selected to defend a captured Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel.
Throughout the ordeal, Donovan exhibits a strong determination to see that his client is represented properly and that his right to a fair trial is exercised. He is a strong proponent of the legal maxim “Innocent until proven guilty.” Yet few others hold that opinion. The judge presiding over the case, Judge Byers, even breaks the impartiality of the bench. Early in the trial, he makes it clear that he intends on swiftly pronouncing Abel’s guilt. This illustrates a juxtaposition of two ideals: litigious objectivity and national interest-based pragmatism. The trial and Donovan’s adoption of fiat justitia et pereat mundus (Let justice be done though the world perish) brings a level of notoriety to him because he is so determined to staunchly defend his client in the face of pressure to suspend his ethics and let national security desires outweigh legal rights and protections.
Concurrent to the trial, the United States government, primarily the CIA, is developing a clandestine high elevation reconnaissance plane that can be used to spy on Soviet territory. Despite being billed as a plane that can fly so high the enemy will not be able to shoot it down, one of the planes is downed and the American pilot is captured. The American prisoner in Soviet custody and the Soviet spy held by the Americans provide each nation with an opportunity to strike a deal and exchange prisoners.
The story is complicated further when an American graduate student is captured in East Germany. Donovan is recruited by the CIA to act as a non-governmental figure who can meet with the Russians to bring the prisoner home. Sadly, the CIA has little interest in securing the student as they are narrowly focused on recovering the pilot. Because of Donovan’s values and good nature, he attempts to jockey with both East Germany and the Soviet Union to trade two American prisoners for one Soviet spy.
Bridge of Spies has good, fluid pacing. Some may think that a movie about a lawyer representing a spy and endeavoring to strike a deal with East Germany and the Soviet Union may be a tedious and boring experience. That is not the case with this movie. The gripping narrative and tension throughout hooked my attention and had me captivated for the duration of the movie.
Before seeing it, I had known that Bridge of Spies was about spies during the Cold War, but I did not realize that it dealt heavily with a lawyer and a prisoner exchange. Going into the movie, I thought it would be more akin to The Good Shepherd and was surprised and ultimately relieved when it ended up going in a different direction. This unique take gives Bridge of Spies its own distinctive taste compared to other Cold War era spy films. As mentioned above, the film’s tone of tension and mystery is communicated effectively.
Tom Hanks’ performance as Donovan is exceptional. For the first few minutes of Donovan’s screen time I could only see Hanks and not the character he was portraying. Once the story developed to be a more nuanced interpretation of the spy genre and more of Donovan’s character traits became evident, Hanks and Donovan blended together in a seamless manner.
Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel was terrifically acted. Abel’s stoic demeanor throughout his situation stands as an example for us today to not be stressed out or worried about developments in our own lives. Abel was in a tough situation, so it would have been understandable for him to be upset or anxious, but when Donovan would comment about Abel’s lack of worry, he would reply, “Would it help?” Though they do not have much screen time together in the second and third acts, Hanks and Rylance’s interactions together are great and Abel’s presence is felt even while Donovan travels to East Germany to negotiate the deal.
The production design and wardrobe are excellent and feel genuine. The set pieces and CGI in East Germany are done in a way that effectively communicates the disparity between the landscape and life in East Germany and the Western nations. The lawyer in East Germany, Wolfgang Vogel, also illustrates that those in the government were better off than the rest of the East Germany’s citizens. His office, clothing, and car all depicted the resources and privilege that he had. This was especially evident when he sped through the area’s ruins in his fast, hip sports car.
Spielberg does an excellent job in his direction. All of the moving parts in the narrative: Abel’s trial, the CIA’s spy plane operation, Donovan’s various meetings with East German and Soviet representatives concerning the exchange, and Donovan’s determination to do his best to retrieve both American prisoners is smoothly and coherently executed.
Bridge of Spies is a smart and enthralling movie. It is still a spy movie, but it does not fit into the cookie cutter mold of traditional spy films. As a result, it provides the genre with a fresh and riveting narrative that should not be missed. Regardless of whether or not you like the spy genre, I highly recommend you see Bridge of Spies. I do not think you will regret it.
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Production: Amblin Entertainment; DreamWorks SKG; Fox 2000 Pictures; Marc Platt Productions; Participant Media; Reliance Entertainment; Studio Babelsberg; TSG Entertainment
Director: Steven Spielberg
Producer: Kristie Macosko Krieger; Christoph Fisser; Marc Platt; Steven Spielberg; Charlie Woebcken
Screenwriter: Matt Charman; Ethan Coen; Joel Coen
Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Editor: Michael Kahn
Art Director: Marco Bittner (supervising art director); Scott Dougan; Kim Jennings (supervising art director, USA); Anja Müller
Music: Thomas Newman
Orchestrator: J.A.C. Redford
Costume Designer: Kasia Walicka-Maimone
Budget: ca. $40,000,000
Release Date: October 16, 2015 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Digital Intermediate; Hawk Scope
Laboratory: ARRI Film & TV; Film Lab; Technicolor PostWorks; Technicolor
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Copyright Holder: DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC; Twentieth Cenutry Fox Film Corporation; TSG Entertainment Finance LLC
Cast: Tom Hanks; Mark Rylance; Domenick Lombardozzi; Victor Verhaeghe; Alan Alda; Joshua Harto; John Rue; Billy Magnussen; Amy Ryan; Jillian Leblin; Noah Schnapp; Eve Hewson; Austin Stowell; Dakin Matthews; Joe Murphy
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Rating: PG-13; Descriptors: Some violence and brief strong language
Running Time: 2 hours and 22 minutes (142 mins.)