Movies have long been an alternative for learning history. For one thing, they’re usually more entertaining to watch than textbooks are to read. You just have to understand that embellishments are sometimes made in order for them to be entertaining. I usually get the gist of a true story from the movie version and will then research further if I’m really interested. Bridge of Spies does a good job of providing the gist for a subject I normally have a hard time grasping: the Cold War.
I don’t know why I’ve never understood the Cold War. But after the introductory words of Bridge of Spies, I got it. It was the time after World War II when the United States and Russia wanted to know not only each other’s nuclear capabilities… but also their intentions. So it didn’t matter as much what equipment they had; it was more important to know if they planned to use it. In that context, the paranoia of the era and the use of spies to discover information now make sense to me.
It takes a while in the movie for someone unfamiliar with the story to understand where it’s going, but it unfolds masterfully. It begins with the arrest of suspected Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in his Brooklyn hotel room and continues with insurance attorney James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) being offered the job of defending him. In the courtroom and across the country, Abel’s guilt is assumed. But Donovan surpasses him as America’s most hated man when he accepts the job.
Donovan is one of those idealistic attorneys who sees beyond the situation at hand and understands that basic human rights are more important. He even argues in front of the Supreme Court that Abel’s rights were violated by an illegal search. The problem is, Abel is not an American citizen and the Russian’s don’t claim him, either, so what rights does he have, if any? Donovan is not successful in defending him, but convinces the judge to spare him the death penalty.
Which is a good thing, because about a third of the way into Bridge of Spies, we start seeing scenes of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) preparing for a mission to take photographs 70,000 feet above Russia. Now the story became vaguely familiar to me; I remembered a mid-1970s TV movie starring Lee Majors. (Yeah, I don’t remember history, but I remember movies.) As Donovan suggested, the United States might need to hold onto Abel in case Russia captured one of our spies and we needed him to make a trade.
Sure enough, we did. And since neither superpower would admit involvement, Donovan was convinced as an independent party to go to Germany during the construction of the Berlin Wall to negotiate the trade. It was actually meant to be a relatively simple task; however, when graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) was arrested in East Berlin, Donovan wouldn’t settle for trading Abel for just one man, even against the orders of the CIA.
I’m certain I’ve simplified the circumstances of the true story more than the movie does, and may have even distorted the facts. I’m reviewing a movie, not history, and Bridge of Spies is a thoroughly involving and ultimately rewarding experience. Director Steven Spielberg calmly ratchets up the tension and restrains from showy theatrics. The final exchange of prisoners on the Glienicke Bridge could easily have been milked for more drama, but is instead brilliantly controlled.
Hanks delivers another capable performance; however, it is Rylance who will likely generate Oscar buzz. If Academy Awards were given based solely on appearance, I’d give one to Rylance. He perfectly embodies a Russian spy with whom you can actually sympathize. It’s easy to see why Donovan would have treated Abel so kindly. Rylance uses small gestures, facial expressions and language to complete his characterization and it’s hard not to focus on him the entire time he’s onscreen.
The movie itself is a little long and is disjointed at times when the stories begin to overlap. A potential selling point is the screenplay because two of the writers are Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. The movie is restrained for them, as well, although I don’t know how much the third writer, Matt Charman contributed to the final product. For a collaboration between Spielberg and the Coen brothers, it’s kind of underwhelming, but for a movie in general, it’s great.