Bridge of Spies tells the true story of James B. Donovan, an insurance lawyer who was politely forced into defending Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy captured on American soil in the midst of the Cold War. I say ‘politely forced’ because the CIA contacted his law firm of which he was on of the lead attorney’s and left him with very little choice. Reluctantly, Donovan accepts. He realizes he has just put himself and his family in danger by people who want Abel taken out and hanged, immediately. Just after the trial Abel is sentenced to what amounts to life in prison (actually, 30 years but Abel is in his 60’s at the time so it was apparent he would die in prison). About the same time one of America’s new U-2 spy plane is shot down over the Soviet Union and its pilot, Francis G. Powers is captured. Now the CIA wants Donovan to organize prisoner swap between the two. As if this weren’t enough a second American, a student named Frederic Pryor is picked up by the East German police right as completion of the Berlin Wall is finalized. Tossed into an East German cell which was run in part by the Soviet Union, Donovan tries to organize a new swap; Abel for Powers and Pryor.
If this synopsis is too long, I apologize, but I felt it necessary to show just how much was riding on this time in history. It was a time when NO ONE felt safe and no one was trusted; governments or its people. Steven Spielberg has directed another period piece and shows why he is one of the best director’s in the history of Hollywood. For all of those popcorn pleasers he has done, he gives us a thoughtful and intelligent film about real people and the exceedingly difficult time they lived in.
Bridge of Spies is an exceptionally well written film filled with smart dialogue and the characters are able to interact as we would imagine they would in that time period and under those circumstances. Everyone is working an angle trying to out maneuver the other but for Donovan, he is trying to do what is right and that is all. He takes it upon himself to throw Pryor into the exchange simply because he is an innocent kid in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The acting is superb. Tom Hanks puts in another Oscar caliber performance as Donovan. He is a good and noble man; honest, hardworking, gutsy and very clever. He does not know how this will all turn out but goes with his gut instinct. Hanks plays Donovan beautifully with confidence but with just enough self doubt, thinking that he may have gone too far and will end up doing more harm than good. Mark Rylance as Abel is a seemingly demure man who is soft spoken but very crafty and observant. Rylance is the only actor to be nominated from Bridge of Spies and that is a travesty. His acting is superb but equally superb is Hanks. How the Academy missed this one is beyond me. But the Academy has missed a lot this year on all sides.
The script crackles with suspense and wit as only Joel and Ethan Coen (yes, those Coen Brothers) and Matt Charman can provide. It was a suspicious time and everyone was on edge and the writers do a terrific job of creating a world on the brink where one wrong move could trigger World War 3. Spielberg is wise to just let the characters go to work and utilize the screenplay to tell their story. Nothing seems forced or contrived in Bridge of Spies and although the run time is two hours and twenty one minutes, I was never bored. It is so fresh to have smart characters just sit and talk and Bridge of Spies does a great job at that. Throw in an Oscar nominated score by Thomas Newman you have a terrific film.
If I had any complaints it is the way Spielberg seems to suggest a moral relativism between the United States and the Communist government of the Soviet Union. The idea that we spied on them and they spied on us, but somehow we were both equal is nonsense. The United States is a free representative republic that cherishes freedom whereas, the Soviet Union wanted to find a way to topple America and subject the whole world to its tyranny. They butchered millions of their own people whose only “crime” was wanting to be free. To me anyway, there is no moral relativism between the United States and the Soviet Union of the Cold War. For all of the flaws each country has, I pick America, EVERY TIME. Other than that, Bridge of Spies is a solid and sharply written drama, extremely well acted and superbly directed by Steven Spielberg; an outstanding film in every way.
Bridge of Spies- **** out of 5
Bridge of Spies- Rated PG-13 for adult situations, brief violence and language
Bridge of Spies- Run Time is 141 minutes
Bridge of Spies is now out on DVD and On Demand