Movie Review: Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies, the latest movie directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Matt Charman (Suite Francaise) and the Coen Brothers, is the cinematic adaptation of the story of American lawyer James B. Donovan’s defending UK-born Soviet spy Rudolf Ivanovich Abel (real name Vilyam “Willie” Genrikhovich Fisher) and later negotiating his exchange for captured American pilot Francis Gary Powers and American economics student Frederic Pryor. (Left out is American photographer Marvin Makinen serving time in the Soviet Union for photographing Soviet military installations.) As a history fan, I was happy to see the vast majority of this movie, like Spielberg’s most previous film, Lincoln, is historically accurate. Fellow cinephiles will also be pleased to know this historical dramatic thriller does not disappoint.
The movie opens with Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) captured in his New York apartment by the FBI. Abel refused to give any information and was put on trial. The FBI believed it was important that Abel needed to have a lawyer to defend him so as to show the world that the United States, even in grave matters of national security, is committed to the rule of law and to its Constitution and would give its enemies a chance to prove their innocence. For this task, insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is chosen. Donovan is faced with a job no one in the US who wasn’t a Soviet sympathizer wanted: defending a man whose job was to pass national security/military secrets to a country that wanted to drop bombs on America.
The conflict this causes towards Donovan is shown throughout the movie. Everyone who encounters him shows nothing but contempt for him. How could he defend an enemy to our country who wanted to destroy our way of life? Tensions were high in his family, particularly between James and his wife, Mary McKenna Donovan (Amy Ryan). Your enjoyment of these scenes depends upon whether you believe enough time was shown between Donovan and his family. I believe just enough screen-time was but many in the audience I viewed the movie with believed more should have been shown.
Years after the trial, American spy pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down flying a U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union and is captured alive. The CIA wants to exchange Abel for Powers and contacts Donovan to be an unofficial negotiator, handling the swap in East Berlin. If anything wrong happens, Donovan could not count on Washington for help. Meanwhile East Germany has captured American economics student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), and Donovan must juggle the priority of releasing Powers with the differing agendas of the Soviets and East Germans.
The story is well-paced and presented with much accuracy. Spielberg has an A-list cast and uses it to great effect. Hanks gives an amazing performance and felt truly convincing as James Donovan, a man who has the thankless job of defending an enemy of the state who later struggles to acquire the freedom of a captured American spy and college student. Rylance’s portrayal of Abel was very compelling and, to my surprise, I actually cared about him as a person.
As an American with an intrigue for history and philosophy, this movie interested me with the question it posed for the audience: “Does a man who does not hold American citizenship and is a sworn enemy of the United States, gathering intelligence for a foreign enemy, deserve the rights guaranteed under the same US Constitution he is working to destroy?” One scene in the movie is powerful due to the multiple different ways it can be interpreted. Donovan is arguing with CIA agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) over why this Soviet/Russian man should have any rights under the US Constitution as he is not American. At one point, Hoffman says to just ignore the rule book as national security is at stake. Donovan replies, “You’re agent Hoffman yeah? You’re German extraction. My name’s Donovan. Irish. Both sides. Mother and father. I’m Irish, you’re German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One, only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that’s what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans so don’t tell me there’s no rule book and don’t nod at me like that you son of a bitch.”