Bridge of Spies

Posted by Joel Copling on October 16, 2015


He is a man of noble intent in an era (specifically, the Cold War) carried by paranoia and self-righteous nationalism. That's a simplification of our protagonist in "Bridge of Spies," sure, but it remains the truth from the moment he, an insurance lawyer, is asked by our nation's government to defend an alleged spy from the Soviet Union. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is just simply a good man, through and through. He is also a lawyer, superb at the art of careful negotiation (A coda at the end tells us his involvement in the Bay of Pigs fiasco; our reaction is likely unsurprised by his achievements on the evidence of the film that proceeds it), and these are the only things we really need to know about him.

Screenwriters Matt Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen realize this truth, too, which means that Donovan acts as our window into the film's bleak outlook (which, perhaps through the efforts of the latter two screenwriters, remains a light, almost comical caper of surprising fleetness) on the position espionage held in the public eye during the early 1960s. The man Jim is asked to defend is, to two countries (America and the U.S.S.R.) and to a judge that doesn't want any "games" in the trial that will go forward in the face of tainted evidence, almost certainly a spy. It is not a question of Rudolf Abel's (Mark Rylance) innocence but of the level of his guilt.

Abel all but completely admits his guilt in a carefully written sequence that allows us to empathize with both characters on the opposite side of an ideological battle. Abel, Donovan argues, should be allowed the same treatment as any given criminal, not simply as an enemy combatant. Both the courts and the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., disagree, however, and Abel is sentenced to thirty years in federal prison. This is a man resigned to the inevitable end of his life as a traitor to his country. He is, Donovan also argues in the film's canniest bit of dialogue, a consummately good soldier. After all, isn't refusal to comply with the opposing government exactly what we ask of our combatants?

Once the film shifts five years into the future, the screenwriters and director Steven Spielberg turn their attention to an extended series of negotiations involving Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), an American officer actually working for the Central Intelligence Agency who is shot down from 70,000 feet in an ultra-secret aircraft being used to take pictures of the Soviet Union (The actual crash sequence is a small masterpiece of visual effects and editing), and Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student studying Soviet economics who gets caught on the wrong side of the newly constructed Berlin Wall at the wrong time. Both Germany and Russia want Abel for their own purposes, so Donovan strikes a deal with officials from both governments: Abel in exchange for both Powers and Pryor.

It's involving stuff but less so than what comes before. The film widens its ideas toward very broad ones involving international cooperation, in the process losing its laser-like focus upon the dichotomy of character between Donovan and Abel as two, very similar men on opposite sides of the argument. Hanks, as Donovan, performs the role with only a steadfast sincerity that this particular actor can deliver (and Amy Ryan is very good, too, if underutilized, as his worried, stay-at-home wife Mary). Rylance, as Abel, has a sort of powerful stoicism that seeps into the bones, especially during a scene wherein Abel tells Donovan of a man Donovan resembles from Abel's childhood. In these two men is where the drama of "Bridge of Spies" lay, and it's more than enough.

Film Information


Tom Hanks (James B. Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Sebastian Koch (Wolfgang Vogel), Scott Shepherd (Hoffman), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers), Will Rogers (Frederic Pryor), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters).

Directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Mark Charman, Ethan Coen, and Joel Coen.

Rated PG-13 (violence, brief language).

135 minutes.

Released on October 16, 2015.