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, its relevance. The third, its volume of sly, subtle humor. Once you get through all of the Spielberg on display (which is first rate), the idiosyncratic voices of screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen begin to emerge.
It’s easy to imagine the kind of spin those filmmaking brothers would 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; it forecasts the film’s themes and character studies (indeed, the character portraits) 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 a true story, told in two chapters (each segmented into the film’s first and second halves), from the late 1950s when Soviet vs. U.S. espionage began to dangerously peak.
The first chapter explores our Constitutional values in the face of an existential threat, and how that threat strategically subverts those values (a very relevant theme, considering how those subversions were mirrored post-9/11).
In the film’s second half, we’re taken through a fascinating covert, off-the-books game of Prisoner Swap. It’s one that ushers us into Germany just as Berlin’s infamous border wall was being built (er, like I said, relevant), set in a dead-of-winter freeze that is very apropos to a very Cold War.
Visually, there is rich detail in the aesthetics of both halves, from the well-tailored Americana to the more bleak Eastern Bloc.
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 narratives so loose with the facts 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 raised.
But James B. Donovan was real. He did what we see here.
Donovan was a citizen who served his country with honor, 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 in one scene and then morally conflicted the next, and be both in equal, authentic measure?
And then there’s Rylance in his Oscar-winning role. As Abel, the U.K.-born son of Russian émigrés who grew up to be a Soviet intelligence officer, Rylance is the antithesis of showy. His performance is the kind you love to see recognized during awards season exactly because of its potent, wry subtleties. 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 that he had worked in ten years prior. Unlike Munich, however, this isn’t a journey scarred by a tortured psychology. It’s much less weighted and yet still substantial.
Through the modern day parallels that can be drawn, Bridge of Spies makes for a classically entertaining thriller; a cloak-and-dagger game of high stakes international intrigue, one that plays out between men in fedoras and coats on both sides of the Freedom / Communism divide.
Emulating the sophisticated nature of John le Carré novels and their screen adaptations, the lengthy opening sequence (which is near-wordless) tracks Rudolf Abel, a Kremlin spy working in America, and the CIA agents who are on his trail. It’s a brilliant, riveting little piece of genre moviemaking.
After Abel is finally captured, Hanks’ James B. Donovan is tasked by his country to represent Abel in his trial (despite only being an insurance / liability attorney).
This all comprises the film’s first hour, one that works as a meditation on Constitutional ethics. For one, there’s the temptation to fudge those ethics as we fight to defeat the enemies who oppose them. There’s also the conviction (via Donovan) that the best defense against those enemies, and against those who stand by their totalitarian causes, isn’t to succumb to their tactics; it’s to stay true to our founding principles and civil liberties.
Upon the film’s release in 2015, these themes all worked as a proxy for the struggles we faced post-9/11. Jihadists certainly weren’t abandoning their “ideals”, perverse as they were. Would we abandon ours? Did we?
Similar questions are raised now in our current political divides, as are issues of Civil Liberties in the age of the Coronavirus Pandemic shutdown. What are we willing to give up or compromise in the name of safety?
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 their voice given how Spielberg’s earnestness is so polar opposite to the Coens’ quirk, but it’s a great example of how smart wit like theirs can translate through a variety of smart sensibilities (like Spielberg’s).
Even so, it’s tension that drives the tone; occasional levity simply eases it.
As a thematic study, the second half is less rigorous than the first; the ideas become implications of the plot rather than ones literally debated in it. But with the addition of the Berlin Wall, there’s not much that needs to be said. The images speak loud and clear.
In fact, It’s the first time that I can recall seeing the Wall’s construction having ever been depicted on film. Here, it’s a recurring backdrop, and a viewer can’t help but draw comparisons to our own border wall debate, one that served as a rallying cry for Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
While Bridge of Spies certainly evokes that “Southern Wall” comparison (by pure luck, no less, as it was filmed before Trump even announced his candidacy), to liken the two would be a false equivalence.
The Berlin Wall was built to keep its oppressed people in. Trump’s proposed wall intends to keep illegals out, along with enemies. While the moral and practical merits of Trump’s wall can certainly be debated (and should), especially in a Pandemic world where controlling borders becomes vital, equating it to Berlin’s Wall is intellectually dishonest.
Nevertheless, what is worth contemplating in relation to our modern issues is what Donovan witnesses, which is 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? Or what kind of Orwellian tactics will we find ourselves permitting in the name of public health?
Securing a nation’s borders is a worthy and necessary cause, as is public health and safety. But enforcement has consequences, and Bridge Of Spies helps us to consider those consequences in very real terms.
Yet ultimately (and thankfully), Spielberg doesn’t allow the movie’s second half to get bogged down in those ideas. Instead, he consciously focuses on Donovan’s own resolve, one that is tested as he strives to broker the release of two American captives (a U.S. pilot and a student) with one Ruskie stone (Abel).
He must do so while alone on his own moral and strategic island. Donovan finds that he must act in direct opposition to CIA directives, orders that want him to stay focused on the U.S. pilot. The Donovan’s superiors, the pilot is the only valuable asset, not the student.
The CIA sees people as chess pieces; Donovan sees them as the human beings that they are.
As it all builds towards a very riveting climactic standoff, Bridge Of Spies becomes an emotionally rewarding story, too. It’s a tale of two men (Donovan and Abel) who, each having been marginalized by the very governments they’ve been loyal to, find a unique solidarity within each other.
Bridge Of Spies won’t hold a consequential place in Spielberg’s legacy, but it’s still a damn good movie.
- During the arguments that James Donovan makes before the Supreme Court, the words used in the film were the same as were actually given on record.
- A film version of these events was almost produced in 1965. Gregory Peck first tried to get it made, starring as Donovan, and had brought Alec Guinness onboard to play Rudolf Abel. However, MGM ended up pulling out as the studio. 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. (That performance garnered Rylance his third Tony win).
- Eve Hewson, who plays Donovan’s oldest daughter, is the real-life daughter of U2 frontman Bono (whose 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 in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.
- This was only the second film from Steven Spielberg to not have the music be composed by John Williams. The first was The Color Purple. Williams was unable to do collaborate here due to a temporary health issue at the time; he has since fully recovered. Composer Thomas Newman stepped in as the replacement.
- A few Spielberg Oners pop up along the way. My favorite is the first glimpse into East Germany, when we see the American student Frederick Pryor. It’s impressive to see how the camera moves around, past, and then reframes the construction of the Berlin Wall.
- As discussed in the trivia notes for Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg is a collector of Norman Rockwell paintings. In Bridge of Spies, the opening shot of Abel painting a self-portrait is a nod to Rockwell’s triple self-portrait.