- Movie Rating -

Bridge of Spies (2015)

| November 18, 2015

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies begins with an image that we only really understand once the movie is over. A tiny, unremarkable man sits alone in his apartment painting his own portrait. To his right is his canvas. To his left is the mirror. He works carefully, putting the finishing touches on a painting of what must be the saddest hang-dog face you’ve ever seen. We see just over his shoulder, but we never see the man’s face except in the mirror. It’s an image that speaks to the duality of this man whose two faces will remain always in question.

The man is Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance) who is soon arrested on charges of espionage against the United States for the Soviet Union – the charges are not false. His chances for leniency are non-existent. This is the 1960s, the Cold War is boiling, the geopolitical and ideological struggles of The U.S. and the Soviet Union are about to cut Germany in half (we literally see the bricks of the wall being laid) and American school kids are being instructed that they can prepare for nuclear war by hiding under the table.

Given that climate, it’s fair to say that Abel’s chances for a fair trial are slim to none, but in this American system of ours, everyone is entitled to a fair trial, even if that trial is totally one sided. The unenviable task of representing Abel falls into the lap of a New York insurance lawyer named James Donovan (Tom Hanks). He wants nothing to do with the case; he hasn’t practiced criminal law in years. Yet, that’s not the point. The point is for Donovan to dutifully stand by Abel while the jury finds him guilty.

Quietly impressed by Abel’s calm demeanor, Donovan becomes determined to try the case and not simply stand by as a dummy fixture as the charges roll by. Failing to get by on the facts, such as an illegal search and seizure, Donovan sets out to keep his client from the death penalty. Abel is a Russian spy and sending this man to his death, Donovan reasons to an implacable Judge, might provoke an incident. Someday the U.S. may need Abel for a prisoner exchange.

Enter Francis Gary Powers, a Korean vet who is tasked with flying a U2 spy plane over Russia to take photographs. If you know the story of Powers and his run-in with the Russians then you kind of already know where this story is going. What is remarkable is that Spielberg, and his screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen take a story based on historical fact and balloon it up into a tense and very effective thriller that isn’t based on gunshots or tanks, but on ideas and quick-thinking. Donovan is a lawyer, a man whose job depends on being able to talk, deal and snooker his way around a difficult situation. What starts as a simple court case escalates into an international incident that takes him into the heart of East Germany to save his client and two American men held by the Soviets – along with Powers, Donovan has to negotiate the release of an American student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) who was arrested in East Germany for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bridge of Spies feels like an espionage thriller fit for John le Carré but filtered through the true-blue American sensibilities of Frank Capra. We’re in the midst of The Cold War, but we still feel that post-WW2 atmosphere of tried and true American Pride even as the global saber-rattling is making a nuclear exchange with the Russians inevitable. As he did with Schindler’s List, Spielberg keeps the tone of the film at ground level. He doesn’t pump up the action for effect, but simply lets his images and his actors create the moments. There is tension here but not out of manipulation.

What I love about this film is that despite it’s modern-day polish, it feels like a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood, when American films held the red, white and blue ideologies close to the chest. Most of this comes through a wonderful performance by Tom Hanks who gives us the kind of character that Jimmy Stewart use to play. Donovan is honest, but he’s also prone to think on his feet – he’s a lawyer. He sees Abel for what he is but he doesn’t dismiss him. There’s an admiration for this little man with a curious accent who seems unfazed by what is happening to him. Donovan is a good man who sets out to do the right thing, to bring home Powers and Pryor and use his legal know-how to do it.

The beauty of Bridge of Spies lies in Spielberg’s special ability to be able to put his hands around historical events and pull them close enough for us to see with more clarity. That resides not only in his screenplays but in his storytelling. Bridge of Spies is told with a simplistic clarity that is never simple minded. He keeps the energy of the story alive even to the conclusion which is inevitable given the history but is still fascinating given the filmmaking. After 40 years, Spielberg is still the best storyteller that we have.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2015) View IMDB Filed in: Action, Drama