Movie Review: Bridge of Spies by Steven Spielberg

Ruud Rating
Bridge of Spies
Three Tennysons/Half Shakespeare

In Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg transformed the war-movie genre forever with the brutally realistic scene of the Normandy invasion. In his latest historical picture, Bridge of Spies, also starring Tom Hanks, Spielberg directs a Cold War era espionage film that adds nothing transformative to the genre, and for that some reviewers have faulted him. But it was not Spielberg’s goal to make Bridge of Spies the kind of film that redefines a genre. Instead, he has made a period piece that abounds with the atmosphere of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and that has the look and feel of a Cold War spy drama. There were times I could have sworn I was watching The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or something else from the John le Carré playbook.

In a way Spielberg’s film, at 141 minutes one of the longer efforts of the season, seems like two movies: The first is the story of how Hanks, as New York insurance attorney James B. Donovan, is convinced to represent captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel—a task the Brooklyn Bar Association foists on him in order to preserve the necessity—or is it merely the appearance?—that any accused defendant in an American court of law must have the right to an able and vigorous defense. While Abel, played with remarkable subtlety by British stage actor Mark Rylance, is clearly guilty of espionage, the most notable aspect of the first half of the movie is the friendship and even mutual respect the two men develop for one another. Though he has no sympathy for Abel’s politics and no delusions about his guilt, Donovan is forced to recognize Abel’s unswerving dedication to his own cause, and his basic humanity. For his part, Abel says that Donovan reminds him of a man he knew as a youth who, though knocked down and beaten by partisans in Russia again and again, kept standing up afterward. He calls Donovan the “standing man.”

With his unflappable calm, Abel keeps our attention and sparks Donovan’s interest. Wondering why Abel persists in his calm demeanor in the face of possible execution, Donovan memorably asks him why he isn’t, essentially, freaking out. Abel only answers, “Would it help?”

The most significant scene in this first half involves Donovan and a CIA agent who wants him to betray attorney-client privilege, arguing that when dealing with these kinds of threats to U.S. security, “there is no rule book.” Donovan’s answer, which Hanks manages to deliver without the air of a sermon and without self-righteousness, is that there is in fact a rule book: it’s called the U.S. Constitution and it is what defines Americans as Americans.

This scene is a microcosm of Donovan’s struggles through the entire first half of the film—against a judge who has convicted his client  before the trial starts, against a prosecution that gained its evidence without a warrant, against the senior partner of his law firm (played notably by Alan Alda in what amounts to a cameo) who wanted to maintain the appearance of a vigorous defense but is dismayed to see Donovan taking the case seriously, against the general public, who revile him for defending a spy and some of whom take shots through his window to the horror of his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and their children. It is a foregone conclusion that he will lose the case, but when he appeals to the Supreme Court he loses the support of almost everyone he is close to. But he is successful in convincing the judge not to impose the death penalty in this case. Like Jimmy Stewart in Washington, Donovan turns out to be taking himself seriously, not realizing he’s simply there for show. But Donovan is not so naïve as Stewart’s Jefferson Smith; He is a seasoned political animal and criminal lawyer who worked on the prosecution side at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. His idealism is there, but it is tempered with worldly wisdom.

The second half of the movie is essentially a new story, but with roots in the first half. Three years after Abel’s arrest, Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 pilot, engaged in a CIA spy mission over the U.S.S.R. at 70,000 feet, is shot down in Soviet air space and captured alive by the Soviets. Subjected to grueling interrogation, Powers does not crack—in this at least he parallels the Russian Abel. Powers is sentenced to ten years imprisonment, but the CIA wants Powers back—they want him back badly enough to work out an exchange with the Soviets: Their spy for ours. Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers. And since the exchange must seem to be arranged outside of official government circles, they call on Abel’s former attorney to negotiate the deal: And James Donovan is drafted again into public servce.

While the first half of the film was fairly predictable—the conclusion was predetermined and even Donovan knew he had no chance—“So everybody is going to hate me and I’m going to lose,” he says while thinking over the request to represent Abel. How can he turn down a deal like that?—the outcome of the negotiations in the second half of the film is not. While the Russians are ultimately willing to exchange Powers for Abel, a monkey wrench is thrown into the mix: Against the backdrop of the erection of the Berlin Wall, an American graduate student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested in East Berlin with a camera and accused of espionage. The East Germans, wishing to assert their own sovereignty, want to exchange Pryor for Abel. Though the CIA tells Donovan that Powers is the only object, and they have no interest in saving Pryor, Donovan will not make the deal unless he can get both prisoners back. And that’s where things get really interesting. Just as he would not do what everyone wanted him to do as Abel’s lawyer, but insisted on doing what was right, so Donovan now refuses to be a simple errand boy for the CIA in the negotiations that are the film’s core.

The tension around this exchange and Donovan’s separate negotiations with the Germans and the Russians is what makes the film suspenseful. The screenplay by Matt Charman, with fine tuning by Ethan and Joel Coen, give Hanks a lot to work with, and creates striking characters even in small parts, like Alda’s; or Sebastian Koch’s as a conniving East German lawyer (Wolfgang Vogel) who harbors resentment against his Soviet masters and tries to work an independent deal with the Americans; or Amy Ryan’s as Donovan’s long-suffering wife, who wants him to tell her something she can believe about his activities even if it’s a lie.

Cinematically, the movie looks like something out of the ’60s, but has one highly memorable sequence of the Berlin wall under construction, with cinder blocks and mortar piling up as groups of people on both sides try to go back and forth as usual amid chaotic conditions, puzzled about what is happening and unaware of the tragic subsequent history of that construction.

There is no doubt that many viewers will see in Bridge of Spies some kind of parable with a message for the contemporary world. I doubt if Spielberg intended anything quite that cut and dried. Certainly there are broader implications for the issues raised in the film. How does one treat prisoners who are considered enemies of the state? Is torture justified in such situations—as the Soviets seemed to have assumed in Powers’ case? If we ignore the Constitution, then what is it we are protecting? If we become what we are fighting against, what is it we have won? For that matter, are the kinds of Cold War tensions recalled by the movie in danger of being resurrected in the current sparring over Syria? Suffice to say that the movie is not only historical, but surprisingly topical.

Although Ryance as Abel is able to steal some scenes with his sympathetic underplayed irony, the movie really depends on Hanks’ ability to carry it from start to finish. And he does not disappoint. He never does. He manages to be the embodiment of American idealism without being priggish, overbearing or chauvinistic. He is simply an honest lawyer who understands the importance of the constitution as the cornerstone of American democracy. In terms of Spielberg-Hanks collaborations, this one is a cut above The Terminal or Catch Me if You Can, though it probably falls short of the transcendent brilliance of Saving Private Ryan. But it’s certainly one of the better movies of the year and will no doubt get some Oscar consideration, particularly in the acting categories for Hanks and Rylance. You ought to see this one: If you’re old enough to remember 1960, it will bring back some tense memories. If you’re too young to remember, you might actually learn some history. I’ll give this one three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.