I’ve mentioned a couple times on the site that I have a deep love of James Bond. And while I know the things James Bond does aren’t really accurate representations of espionage (there’s less speed-boat chases) he was my gateway drug into the world of more spy fiction. I find that whole world fascinating, both real stories and fictional takes that go the more accurate route to the genre. So when I heard that Steven Spielberg was making a Cold War era spy movie that was being written by the Coen Brothers…I was psyched. Then as the movie got closer and we actually started learning things about it, I was a littler surprised to find that the plot wasn’t exactly going to be about espionage, despite having the word Spies in the title, it was actually more of a legal story. But that still sounded interesting to me, so this whole year Bridge of Spies has been a highly anticipated flick for me. And shockingly, with such a great team behind it, it didn’t disappoint.
The movie looked at two major events in the Cold War, what was known as the Hollow Nickle Case, and the U-2 incident. In the Hollow Nickle Case, American agents apprehended a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel who was exchanging information through a hollow nickle. Pretty straightforward. the U-2 incident involved pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was flying a state of the art U-2 spy-plane over USSR territory, and was shot down, unable to start the self-destruct sequence of the plane, and was captured by the Soviets. But while these incidents are in the movie, it’s more about one man, Jame Donovan (Tom Hanks), a successful insurance lawyer in New York, who is picked by the government to defend Abel’s espionage case, and then eventually facilitate the trade of spies between the two superpowers. And man was it an interesting movie. I kept struggling to identify what genre of movie it was, and I think that’s a good thing. At times it was a spy movie, showing what Abel and Powers were doing, and how they were getting it done, but at other times it was a legal thriller, showing Donovan do the best he could to defend his hated client, and sometimes it was a political commentary when we saw the devastation of East Berlin and the construction of the Berlin Wall, but I think overall, it was a character study about a very interesting man.
Donovan didn’t want to handle the Abel case, who would? But it falls to him, and he actually does a good job. Everyone, including the judge of the case, assumes that he will just phone it in, since who really cares about getting the Communist Spy a fair trial, but Donovan does everything he can to handle the case as professionally as possible. He even starts to like Abel, admiring the fact that while he was an enemy agent, he was still a good agent. He doesn’t give anything up, and seemed completely fine with the possibility of being killed by the US government for his actions. And man do things not go well for Donovan. Because people are stupid, they don’t understand that even a criminal deserves a fair trial by our law, and they assume that because he’s defending Abel, Donovan must be a Communist sympathizer, and he starts being treated like crap, even having someone perform a drive-by shooting on his house. Yet despite all these problems, and still doesn’t give up, and performs to the best of his ability. But in the end, Abel was never going to win his case, nor should he, and he’s found guilty of espionage. But luckily, before the sentencing, Donovan speaks with the judge about the possibility of keeping Abel alive and in jail, to be used as a bargaining chip in future espionage cases, and that’s exactly what happens.
Right on cue (despite the fact that in real life it happened years later) Francis Gary Powers is flying over USSR territory, taking surveillance photos, and his U-2 plane is shot down. He’s unable to destroy the ship and unable to commit suicide with a cyanide dollar coin, and he’s taken into custody by the USSR. The two governments decide to trade the captured spies, and the CIA picks Donovan to handle the arbitration over the swap. So lucky Donovan gets to go to East Berlin and deal with the negotiations. And in case you don’t know, things weren’t going well there. Last week my wife and I were in Washington DC so I could attend a conference for my day job, and we stayed a couple days longer to do some sightseeing. One of the places we hit was a place called the Newseum, which is a museum about the news, and they had actual panels of the Berlin Wall on display, along with a guard tower, and man was it intimidating. And it sure was in this movie too. We see it being built in one scene, and then we see a harrowing scene later on where Donovan sees people trying to cross over the wall, and get machine gunned down. It’s also incredibly bleak and depressing to see the devastation of Eastern Berlin, which was pretty much kept destroyed by the occupying Soviets.
And just when you thought things couldn’t go worse for poor Donovan, a whole new wrinkle gets thrown into the plan. Right before he gets there, with the express purpose of trading Able for Powers, another American, a student named Frederic Pryor, is captured on the Eastern half of the city, right before the Wall comes up, and is taken into custody, the German soldier claiming he two is a spy. The CIA agents who are in Berlin with Donovan don’t give a shit about Pryor, and are perfectly fine letting him stay in an East Berlin prison to rot, but when Donovan hears about him, he becomes fixated on him. Donovan then wheels around East Berlin, talking with both USSR representatives, and the German Democratic Republic. And after applying pressure on both side, against the CIA’s wishes, Donovan ends up victorious, getting both Powers and Pryor returned in exchange for Abel. Donovan then returns home, confident that he did the right thing.
This movie was really great. Spielberg directed it wonderfully, keeping his usual sentimentality present. Honestly the Spielberg movie it most reminded me of was Close Encounters, because both films feature a lot of a father doing what he knows is right, despite his families reservations. Even though one movie was about a man standing up for justice and the other wanted to really meet some aliens. And man was the script great. I would never have assumed the movie would be as funny as it was, but that’s really the biggest talent of the Coen Brothers. It was full of a wonderful dry sense of humor, especially the incredibly charming Abel, who was made an interesting and likable character instead of some evil caricature. And man did Tom Hanks kill it. I love Tom Hanks. I love his serious stuff, and I really love his older comedies, and it’s always great to see him put in such a fun and likable performance. But I think the thing I loved most about this movie was the fact that it wasn’t an overly pro-American movie. It was pro-justice. This easily could have been a story about how awesome America is, and how evil the Soviet Union was. We could have shown then as torturing monsters, and the Americans as the wonderful, level-headed arbiters of justice. But that wasn’t the case. Pretty much every American other than Tom Hanks was kind of shitty in this movie. Everyone wanted to just kill Abel, without even giving the guy a fair trial, and the CIA agents were perfectly fine with having an innocent American citizen jailed in an East Berlin prison instead of helping him. I think it was a really bold choice to have Donovan’s primary goal in this movie be securing justice for the Soviet spy, and not ensuring the freedom of the American spy. It lays the fault at both nations equally, and tries to show that the real victim of the whole incident was justice.
Bridge of Spies was written by Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, was directed by Steven Spielberg, and distributed by Walt Disney Studios, 2015.
Categories: Reel Talk