Movie review: ‘Bridge of Spies’ fights the good fight toward the Oscars
Special to the Sun-Bonanza
BRIDGE OF SPIES
HHH 1/2 (A-)
• Directed By Steven Spielberg
• Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Mikhail Gorevoy, Will Rogers
• Rated PG-13, Drama, 135 minutes
Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” details real events that converge into both geopolitics and matters of conscience. The director’s technical expertise allows him to coherently tell parallel stories while showcasing the late 1950s, an era when the American good-old-boy network flourished right alongside national paranoia.
The story stars frequent Spielberg actor Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan, an insurance attorney for a New York firm. We watch Donovan negotiating with another lawyer while comfortably ensconced in an exclusive club.
Seemingly in the weaker position, Donovan creates a plausible, even persuasive, argument in his client’s favor. He’s clearly both smart and committed to earning his fee.
Meanwhile, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel is occupied with stealthily evading federal agents. Portrayed by Mark Rylance as a humble, quiet man whose movements are a study in economy.
When Abel’s flat is invaded and he’s placed under arrest, Abel courageously uses that humility to further his subterfuge, refusing to give any information.
Back at Donovan’s firm, senior partner Thomas Watters Jr. (Alan Alda) hands Abel’s case to Donovan. Appointed by the courts to defend the spy, Watters wants his firm to be seen doing a patriotic and competent job.
It’s 1957, the Cold War is in full throttle and Donovan’s wife (Amy Smart) is angered that her husband would place their family’s good name in peril by defending Abel.
Though initially reluctant to take the case, Donovan finds the challenge interesting, and he appreciates his client’s honor upon learning that Abel refuses to trade information for immunity.
Abel’s rights are subverted because he is a foreign national (carrying a British passport) charged with committing treason. However, Donovan argues that we consider American spies doing the same work in other countries to be patriots.
Donovan possesses a gift for vigorous debate without alienating his opponent. He banks the credit earned by his good character to persuade the judge that sparing Abel’s life is smart insurance in case of a future prisoner exchange.
Donovan’s foresight proves prophetic when, several years later, American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down by the Soviets, who insinuate in a veiled letter to Donovan that they’re interested in trading Powers for Abel.
Thus begins the second act of Donovan’s story, where he is sent to Berlin to negotiate with the Russians for Powers and with the East Germans, who have recently erected the Berlin Wall, for the release of Frederic L. Pryor, an American graduate student who was caught in East Berlin.
No matter how bleak Donovan’s mission becomes, Hanks, whose brow furrows in four vertical stripes beneath his lined forehead, conveys confident optimism. No matter what agendas the CIA, Russian bureaucrats or East German diplomats foist upon him, Donovan remains steadfast in his determination to achieve an outcome only he believes is possible or worthy — a two-for-one prisoner exchange.
As depicted in the film, Abel appreciates the depth of Donovan’s ethics as no one else does and stands with Donovan’s course of action despite knowing Donovan’s agenda could cost Abel his one opportunity to return home.
Hanks, an affable everyman even in the depths of Donovan’s fear or despair, is an ideal choice to defy the truism “nice guys finish last.”
Spielberg’s film highlights the dodgy, sometimes shameful behavior of both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War while honoring a few who followed their consciences above all else — Donovan and Abel — come what may. Surely, they never dreamed that 63 years later, Oscar nominations may be what comes.