"Bridge of Spies" Brings Cold War Espionage Far Into the Present, Maintaining Relevance

Ted2 Davis • The Student Life

It isn’t Oscar season without a wartime espionage film. This year, that film is Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies" starring Tom Hanks, the only truly recognizable actor in the film.

It tells the true story of British-born Soviet spy Rudolf Abel's arrest, conviction and eventual exchange, and of James B. Donovan, a Brooklyn attorney, between 1957 and 1962: the heat of the Cold War. 

The film starts with a classic spy movie subway chase scene: an unseemly espionage perpetrator (Mark Rylance) is followed by four G-men on the train into New York City, but they lose him in the rush hour crowd. Coming off as an old, slow painter with an Irish accent, he is able to retrieve an encoded message from his easel as he paints a scene on the Hudson, the agents nearby but unknowing. Just as he’s able to read it back in his apartment, the FBI agents break down his door and tear up his room to find enough evidence to arrest and prosecute him as a Soviet spy.

In an attempt to show the great democracy of the United States against the evil red communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the length of the country’s name is a running joke), the FBI decides to hire a successful, big-name attorney who will be able to put all his talent and resources into his case. That attorney is James Donovan, who specializes in insurance but had been a prosecutor at the Nurnberg Trials.

The film makes it seem as though he was randomly chosen from a list of patriotic New York attorneys hit with a curve ball, when actually Donovan’s past at the War Crimes Tribunal made him the right man for the job. He reluctantly takes on the risky, yet sure-fire, case: “Everyone will hate me, but at least I’ll lose.”

While everyone has already convicted and executed Abel in their minds (calling him the “most hated man in America”), Donovan is dead set on giving him as much due process as anyone. But each time he attempts to complete his job and defend his client, he becomes more hated and belittled. He gets evil stares on the subway, his home is shot at, and his children believe he’s protecting the enemy. 

Although Donovan cannot prevent the conviction of his client, he does get his sentence reduced by playing Abel off as a possible pawn piece in a never-ending war of information stealing and espionage. Simply, if an American is captured, Abel can be exchanged. Donovan is an insurance lawyer, after all. This is much to the surprise and anger of the execution-trigger-happy, bomb-shelter-building public. 

This first portion of the movie moves pretty quickly between scenes in courtrooms, prison cells and offices. The first half-hour seems to set up the rest of the film, where it really gets interesting and, to an extent, exhilarating. This classic Cold War spy movie quickly becomes a prisoner exchange film. 

The FBI and CIA tell Donovan his work is not over. All the while, a newly recruited Air Force lieutenant and American spy, Francis Gary Powers (it was, after all, a tit-for-tat game), was shot down over the USSR and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. It is Donovan’s task now to negotiate the exchange of Powers for Abel, a fate he had predicted.

It is a movie characterized by frowns, wrinkles and 1950s fashion (including some fabulous glasses and jackets). It is definitely more of a feel-good movie—I did not leave the theater bummed or displeased. I was never gripping my seat, laughing out loud, or gasping from shock (though there were a few ah-ha realization moments).

It ends with a foreshadowing of the hardship that East Germany and East Berlin would experience for the next 30 years: Donovan sees American children happily jumping across walls and fences in Brooklyn, in stark contrast to the gunning-down he saw next to the newly constructed Berlin Wall back in Germany. But like any good biopic, it ends with credits describing the futures of the characters we saw, including the note that Donovan would go on to become an expert negotiator, such as in the Bay of Pigs Invasion when he successfully negotiates the release of 1,113 prisoners. 

Overall, “Bridge of Spies” is a solid Cold War spy movie with strong direction under Spielberg, a witty and on-target screenplay by Matt Charman and the Cohen Brothers, and engaging and believable acting. The story is one worth telling: smart and, though historical, very much relatable to the espionage going on today.

But the execution is somewhat flawed and falls short. It lacks a tension-building soundtrack (it was actually somewhat cheesy and antiquated), there are no agonizing torture scenes or exhilarating chase scenes, and it provides no interesting plot twists or emotional charge. It did, however, have impactful scenes of East Berlin immediately before the Wall went up, a time that is rarely portrayed on screen, and it showed how continuing Soviet manipulation and trickery was playing out to the American public.

The story, though obviously based on historical fact, is quite predictable and moves through scenes that are mostly hard-hitting, although some fall flat. The “Bridge” looks great from afar and certainly bears a good name, but once you step closer you see it’s actually somewhat structurally unsound and underwhelming. It is, however, a great tribute to and portrait of the difficult times of the 1950s on either side of the pond.

Victoria Andersen PO '18 is writing a bi-weekly film column that focuses on recently released films, buzz about movies, and other related happenings.