Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is a dignified and well-crafted motion picture based on the true story of a Cold War spy swap on the Glienicke Bridge in Germany. The 2015 thriller features a screenplay by Matt Charman as well as Joel and Ethan Coen, with Charman’s original idea coming after discovering a footnote about James Donovan in a book about JFK.
The tale seems destined for the Spielberg treatment given its themes of “ordinary men” heading into extraordinary circumstances and going well above the call of duty. The real Donovan, a lawyer from the Bronx, eventually went on to negotiating the release of prisoners held by Cuba following the botched Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Tom Hanks does the honours as Donovan. He specializes in insurance settlements, but he’s tasked to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). The Americans believe Abel is a KGB spy and decided to give him a fair trial, if only to keep up appearances. Donovan does his best, but the odds are stacked against his client and he loses the case. Abel is sent to prison.
As Donovan predicted, American pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the Russians after they shoot down his spy plane. And the East Germans have captured student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). Donovan is contacted by the Russians about Abel and is sent by the CIA to negotiate the terms of an exchange.
Bridge of Spies begins with some cogent political thinking, with Donovan making overtures to insist that Abel gets a fair trial. He’s vilified for this view, with the American public believing his client to be a traitor. Donovan argues, rightly, that the man can’t be a turncoat because he’s not an American and he was just doing his job for his country – the same job many Americans are doing for theirs.
This outlook persists to this day, with foreigners often seen as somehow flouting the sacrosanctity of the United States because they act in the interests of their own nations. But Spielberg argues otherwise, creating some interesting points about the rule of law and the Constitution and planting his Bridge of Spies in compelling soil.
Of course, the main thrust of the picture involves the actual spy exchange and all the preamble about the law and fairness works to solidify Hanks’ character as a moral man. It also confirms a slight friendship between Donovan and Abel, which is mostly touched on through the use of casual banter.
As with most of Spielberg’s pictures, there’s a certain degree of sanguine calculation at play. The usual markers are present, from the low-angle shots to the moment when Donovan’s family is put in gunshot peril to the tensely inevitable conclusion. It’s safe stuff, apart from the aforementioned overture, and there are few surprises.
Hanks is in full James Stewart mode as Donovan, a lawyer who is never rattled. He expresses the most consternation over a cold, which doesn’t really account for how he’s able to transform the CIA’s operation or lead the American charge while he strolls around East Berlin without an overcoat. Somehow, this dude gets things done.
Even after Donovan witnesses horror with his own two eyes, little resonates. He’s still warm and imperial, a role seemingly built for Hanks, but he’s not exactly a commanding guidepost. Rylance fares a great deal better as Abel, a complicated man resigned to his fate and unsure about the good worrying would do. He gives the right amount of pause to his performance.
Bridge of Spies is a “good” movie in terms of architecture and individual elements, but that’s part of the problem. It’s a safe and spotless take on diplomacy, an examination of negotiation that insists everything works out in the end. There’s no grit or darkness and it lacks propulsion, suggesting mid-tier Capra as driven through the snow-white streets of Berlin.