With a Coen brothers’ (and Matt Charman) script, with Steven Spielberg behind the camera and a paunchy Tom Hanks playing an insurance-turned-criminal defense lawyer, could there be a better recipe for a Cold War period drama?
Bridge of Spies is a deliciously paced period drama set when the Cold War rhetoric and its surrounding appetite for intrigue was at its hilt. It’s the late 1950s; both the Soviet Union and the United States have spies scavenging around in enemy territories collecting secrets. Rudolph Abel (KGB) (brilliantly played by Mark Rylance) lives the camouflage life of an artist and one day recovers a secret message from a park. The FBI is tipped off and a few minutes later Mr. Abel finds himself in jail charged with espionage. Being arrested in the United States means that he must be given a fair trial (or at least the appearance of it), just so the enemy Soviets don’t get to brag about a martyr captured and treated like an enemy, by their mortal adversary.
The perfect moment comes and insurance attorney James Donovan (played superbly by Tom Hanks) is called in by his boss and asked to take up Abel’s defence. Rather reluctant in the beginning, having not practised criminal law for years, Donovan finally agrees to take the case.
Spielberg is always able to throw little signs of genius in his narratives, as he glorifies American values (justice and fairness in this case) while turning around and critiquing them right in the next few frames. And more often than not, it’s never dramatic or disparaging. Spielberg sets up the defence of Abel as the right thing American values purport, but in practice these values never play out and are hollow and ridden with human follies.
Donovan begins diligently working on Abel’s defence; while pressure around him grows to let the spy, this enemy of the United States, face the electric chair. Donovan, the idealist that he is, is determined to give Abel the fair trial he deserves.
At the heart of the film is the friendship that forms between Donovan and Abel. It was very interesting to see how the writers created this intriguing relationship between them. These two men, though polar opposites in ideology, perhaps even world-view, find such commonality in their choice to live by their principles. Abel’s character is the quiet genius of the film. He deals with possible electrocution or at the least prison for the next thirty years with casual nonchalance. When asked by Donovan if all of this bothers or stresses him out, his casual response is, ‘Would that help?’
The legal system doesn’t want to bother with procedure, nor real justice and the trial is rushed through to a guilty conviction. However, before sentencing, Donavan is able to argue and convince the judge that it might be prudent to spare Abel the electric chair, for he might come in handy if an exchange for an American capture were to happen in the future. The Cold War is raging and thus the capture of spies is not a one-time occurrence.
Low and behold, a reconnaissance mission over Soviet territory results in the capture of an American pilot. The action moves to Berlin, where Donovan travels to discuss the exchange (unofficially) with the Soviets. The narrative moves fluidly, showcasing the constant interplay between ideology, international diplomacy, heightened Cold War tensions and these normal citizens who are pawns in this entire circus of powerbrokers and war mongers.
As Donavan navigates his way through East Berlin and attempts to side-step the GDR’s (East Germany) attempts to use this hostage handover as a means to get American legitimacy, he begins to feel homesick, missing his home, his family, his American breakfast, and his American way of life (typical Hollywood fare).
Bridge of Spies is interesting for its look at how the Cold War wasn’t just about two superpowers at odds with each other, but also how it dictated the lives of ordinary and real people. It also attempts to critique that no matter where we are on the ideological divide, no matter what bridges separate us, we are all the same humans, fretting away for the same fundamental things. The most telling image of the film is when Donovan is looking out his window while on a train from East Berlin to the West side and sees people being shot and killed while attempting to escape to the West. Such human violence!
For the genius Spielberg is known to be and notwithstanding his slightly sloppy/stereotypical representation of the red Communists on the other side of the Berlin wall, Bridge of Spies is surely worth a watch for its intoxicating pace and good storytelling.
Bridge of Spies is now playing in theatres.