“Bridge Of Spies,” screenplay by Matt Charman, Ethan and Joel Coen and directed by Steven Spielberg, is a powerhouse of a movie based on true events. While this may not be the action packed spy vs. spy film that one has become accustomed to thanks to James Bond, Jason Bourne and others. Spielberg manages to remind us why he is one of the greatest filmmakers of our time by showing us the true purpose of a spy: gathering intelligence.
The movie begins in 1957 during the Cold War, a time when the USA and the Soviet Union were preparing for the first shot to start what could have been World War III. You can practically taste the somber tone the film exudes within the first 10 minutes where we see undercover agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) arrested under suspicions of being an enemy operative. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is a highly regarded insurance lawyer who is assigned the case of representing Abel. Hanks shows us that he has not lost his stride with his age as he delivers sharp lines and the witty remarks that he manages to pull off with ease. He and Rylance play well off of each other and give the film some light hearted banter that fits with the seriousness of the situation all too well.
As the representative of the most hated man in the country, Donovan becomes subjected to being ostracised by his coworkers, receives hate mail and even a drive-by shooting. When the entire nation is prepared to throw his client under the bus for doing his job and being an honorable man for his country, Donovan defends him with the same honesty and moral righteousness as Atticus Finch from “To Kill A Mockingbird.” When his own family and friends begin to question Donovan’s mentality towards defending someone who has half of the nation in a frenzy, he still does his absolute best to do his job as Abel’s lawyer. This ordeal forces the audience to confront the moral quandaries about doing the right thing, even when it conflicts with safety.
Despite being unable to have Abel acquitted of the charges against him, Donovan skillfully convinces Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) not to give him the death sentence and to keep him as a prisoner should an American spy ever be caught by the Soviet Union. This is exactly what happens when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down in a spy plane while taking photographs of the Russian terrain. The CIA asks Donovan to negotiate a trade of the spies in East Berlin. But before his departure, Donovan finds out that East Germany has apprehended Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American college student, who was attempting to cross the Berlin Wall to the west side.
While Donovan desires to bring both Americans back home, the CIA urges him to only care about Powers, he ignores that suggestion and goes for the whole kit and caboodle. Obstacles occur at every turn, however, as East Germany is determined to be at the adults’ table in the exchange and want to be the primary trade partner for Abel, despite having the arguably less valuable target. During Donovan’s days negotiating, we get quick scenes showing the Soviets attempting to break Powers’s mental fortitude to reveal American secrets. One might question Spielberg’s choice in showing the Russian’s rather inhumane treatment of Powers while only ever showing Abel as being well taken care of during his stay in prison, but perhaps the CIA actually did not resort to such methods (though I am doubtful).
The exchange of the Soviet spy for the American agent and student is masterfully bargained by Donovan who is present at the trade off. But the pilot and student are not to released at the same location, due to East Germany’s still attempting to show its strength as a formal nation. They take their time to arrive at the drop-off, during which, Donovan refuses to give Abel to the Soviets for Powers until they hear that Pryor has arrived safely into American protection. The exchange creates a tension that makes one wonder whether or not the deal will be called off entirely. But even when the leading CIA officer of the operation tells Abel that he is free to go back to the Soviets, he does not move out of respect for Donovan due to the fact that he fought to the best of his ability for him in court.
Eventually, the Germans give up prior to American officers and the trade of spies goes on without incident, but not before respectful parting words are exchanged between Abel and Donovan. Upon his return home, Donovan is seen as a national hero and viewed with new respect by his family and society for orchestrating one of the most famous prisoner exchanges in American history. It is evident that Spielberg and Hanks form a fantastic pair and that this movie will have a strong running in the Academy Awards.
Rating: 4.5 stars