Bridge Of Spies (2015)
(for some violence and brief strong language)
Released: October 16, 2015
Runtime: 141 minutes
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson
“Minor” Spielberg though it may be, Bridge Of Spies is far from insignificant.
While not indispensable viewing, there’s something essential about this true life Cold War yarn, even timely. This was my third time seeing it (the first led to the creation of this blog; its review was my debut post), and Bridge Of Spies has become more resonant with each viewing, continuing to reveal itself in subtle, rewarding ways.
The first time, it was the craftsmanship. The second time, its relevance. The third, its volume of sly, subtle humor. Once you get through all of the Spielberg (which is first rate), the idiosyncratic voice of screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen begins to emerge.
It’s easy to imagine the spin they’d put on James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks here) through George Clooney or James Brolin (in the film’s second hour especially) or Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Supporting Actor Oscar winner Mark Rylance) through John Turturro or Michael Stuhlbarg.
From the opening “self portrait” shot, we see Spielberg’s clever artistry on full display, forecasting an entire film that would follow suit. It also works as an establishing metaphor, suggesting the dual nature of spies whose world we’re about to enter. It’s the true story, told in two chapters (each segmented into the film’s first and second halves), from late 1950s Soviet vs. U.S. espionage.
The first explores our Constitutional values in the face of an existential threat that strategically subverts them (like I said, relevant); visually, this is set within an aesthetic of rich detail and Americana. The second half is a fascinating covert off-the-books game of Prisoner Swap that takes us into Germany just as Berlin’s infamous border wall was being built (er, like I said, relevant), set in the dead-of-winter freeze apropos to a very Cold War.
When a movie labels itself as “Inspired By True Events” as opposed to “Based On A True Story”, that distinction generally means that the filmmakers were “inspired” to create a portrayal so loose that it’s effectively a complete fiction. The lead character is either a re-named variation on a real-life figure, or a composite of several. Events aren’t real; they simply represent thematic ideas that the actual event also raised.
But James B. Donovan was real. He did what we see here. He was a citizen who served his country not only with honor but conviction and ingenuity – and at a crucial, precarious time. Who better than Tom Hanks to play such a Jimmy Stewart All-American, one who can be morally upstanding and morally conflicted in equal, authentic measure?
And then there’s Rylance as Abel, in his Oscar-winning role. The antithesis of showy, it’s the kind of performance you love to see recognized during awards season; Rylance makes such a memorable impression with such a minimalist approach.
Pre-dating the events of Munich by fifteen years, Bridge Of Spies is a fairly quick return for Spielberg to the spy thriller genre he worked in ten years prior. Unlike Munich, this isn’t a psychologically tortured journey. It’s much less weighted yet still substantial, drawing modern day parallels, that makes for a classically entertaining cloak-and-dagger game of high stakes international intrigue between men in coats and fedoras on both sides of the Freedom/Communism divide.
Again emulating the sophisticated nature of John le Carré novels (and their screen adaptations), the lengthy near-wordless opening sequence tracks Rudolf Abel, a Kremlin spy working in America, and the CIA agents on his trail. It’s a brilliant and riveting little piece of genre moviemaking. Hanks’ James B. Donovan, an insurance / liability attorney, is tasked by his country to represent the captured Abel in his trial.
This comprises the film’s first hour. It works as a meditation on Constitutional ethics, the temptation to fudge them against enemies who oppose them, and the conviction (via Donovan) that the best defense against enemies who stand by their cause isn’t to succumb to their tactics but to stay true to our founding principles and civil liberties. This all works as a proxy for America’s struggle today. Jihadists certainly aren’t abandoning their “ideals”, perverse as they are. Will we abandon ours?
That second hour then fully shifts into spy movie mode, and from it emerges that Coen Brothers’ dry humor. It’s harder to initially recognize given that Spielberg’s inherent earnestness is so polar opposite to the Coens’ quirk, but it’s a great example of how smart wit can translate through a variety of smart sensibilities. Even so, it’s tension that drives the tone; occasional levity simply eases it.
As a thematic study it’s less rigorous than the first half, or simply a more streamlined extension of it, but then it does add the layer of the Berlin Wall. It’s the first time I can recall its construction ever being depicted on film – here, as a recurring backdrop – and one can’t help but start drawing comparisons to the border wall debate that has served as the initial rallying cry for Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
Now while the film certainly evokes that appraisal (by pure luck, as it was filmed before Trump announced his candidacy), to liken the two would be a rash false equivalence. The Berlin Wall was built to keep its oppressed people in. Trump’s proposed wall means to keep illegals (and possible enemies) out. While the moral and practical merits of Trump’s wall can certainly be debated (and should), equating it to Berlin’s Wall is intellectually dishonest.
Nevertheless, what is telling to contemplate is what Donovan witnesses: how the Eastern Bloc Germans keep their citizens from escaping – by shooting and killing them. Would the same be required of United States border officers to keep illegals from entering? Securing a nation’s borders is both a worthy cause and a necessary one. But enforcement has consequences, and Bridge Of Spies helps us to consider them in very real terms.
Yet ultimately, that layer is an unexpected (though likely welcome) addition for Spielberg, who instead consciously focuses the second hour on Donovan’s own resolve as he strives to broker the release of two American captives with one Ruskie stone (Abel).
He must do so while on a moral and strategic island, acting in direct opposition to CIA directives that want him to stay focused on the U.S. pilot, the only valuable asset, not the student. The CIA sees people as chess pieces; Donovan sees them for the human beings they are.
As it all unfolds – building toward a very riveting climactic standoff – Bridge Of Spies becomes an emotionally rewarding story, too. It’s one of two men (Donovan and Abel) who, having been marginalized by the very governments they’ve been loyal to, find within each other a unique solidarity.
Bridge Of Spies won’t hold a consequential place in Spielberg’s legacy, but it’s still a damn good movie.
Available to rent through Amazon Video.
- For the arguments that James Donovan makes before the Supreme Court, the words used in the film were the same as were actually given.
- A film version of these events was almost made in 1965. Gregory Peck tried to get it made, starring as Donovan, and had brought Alec Guinness onboard to play Rudolf Abel. MGM ended up pulling out as the studio, however, because they felt that at the time Cold War tensions were simply too high.
- Spielberg cast Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel after seeing him perform in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on Broadway (which ended up leading to Rylance’s third Tony win).
- Eve Hewson, who plays Donovan’s oldest daughter, is the real-life daughter of U2 frontman Bono (who’s real name is Paul Hewson). Coincidentally, the band U2 took its name from the U-2 plane that’s featured in this film.
- In another coincidence, the characters James B Donovan and Wolfgang Vogel share the same last names with the two villains of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
- This was only the second Spielberg film to not have the music composed by John Williams. The first was The Color Purple. Williams was unable to do it due to a temporary health issue at the time that has since been corrected. Composer Thomas Newman stepped in as the replacement.
- The opening shot of Abel painting a self-portrait is based on Norman Rockwell’s triple self-portrait.
- A few Spielberg Oners pop up along the way. My favorite is the first glimpse into East Germany and the Frederick Pryor American student character, and how the camera moves around, past, and reframes the building of the Berlin Wall.
- The opening shot of Abel painting a self-portrait is a nod to Norman Rockwell’s self-portrait.