Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies was always the other movie in town. You know what I mean? When my wife and I wanted to see a movie, it was always ‘should we see Bridge of Spies, or should we see . . . ‘ It looked like a really good movie. It’s Spielberg on American history; always something he does well. It had a screenplay by the Coen brothers. It starred Tom Hanks. There was no reason not to see it. But somehow, we missed it, week after week.
I wish now we’d seen it. It’s a terrific film, a deserving Best Picture nominee. And it occurred to me that it’s one of the few truly excellent films about the Cold War that I’ve seen. But there’s something about it that does feel rather ‘other film in town.’ It’s a structural issue in the film itself.
The film begins in 1957, with the capture of a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Tom Hanks plays Jim Donovan, a New York insurance attorney, but with a background as one of the attorneys at the Nuremberg trials. He’s asked to defend Abel, but it’s made clear to him by everyone–his law partners and the trial judge included–that his defense is meant to be perfunctory; that it’s not any part of his task to actually get the guy off. But Donovan’s the real deal, a terrific attorney, and a genuine true believer in what America’s supposed to stand for, including rule of law and due process. He can’t quite win the case, but he comes darn close, and he does argue successfully against the death penalty, saving his client’s life.
Cut ahead to 1960, and Francis Gary Powers, the American U2 pilot, shot down over the Soviet Union. Cut ahead two more years, to ’62, and as the Berlin wall is under construction, Donovan is asked to travel to East Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange: Abel for Powers. As he arrives, he learns of an American grad student, Fredric Prior (Will Rogers) caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and, preposterously, accused of espionage. And so Donovan decides to exceed his mandate and trade Abel for both guys. Who are held by different authorities–Soviet and East German. And all very much against the wishes of Donovan’s CIA handlers.
These are all terrific conflicts. The Cold War environment. The willingness of the CIA to let Prior freeze in an East German prison. The mysterious functionaries, Russian and German, Donovan has to deal with. It’s a great story, about a genuinely heroic American negotiating complicated moral terrain while keeping true to his own best sense of himself and his country. I liked the whole film. I loved the testy exchanges between Donovan and his various antagonists, US and Commie.
There isn’t anything not to like about the movie. It introduces us to a heroic American most people have never heard of–all to the good. It explores a history that we continue to find fascinating. It’s also an exceptionally well-made film–tautly paced and beautifully filmed.
I just can’t help but notice that the stakes aren’t actually all that high for Donovan, the protagonist. There’s a great scene early in the film where he meets with a CIA agent, who wants to know what he’s learning from Abel. Donovan says he can’t tell him: attorney-client privilege. The CIA guy says, ‘we’re in a war, if you’re a patriot, you have to tell me anything that might affect American interests.’ And Donovan asks him this: ‘your name is Hoffman, right? You’re of German ancestry? And I’m Irish, both sides. So what makes us both Americans? We both agree on the same set of rules. We call it the Constitution. So, no, I will not violate attorney-client privilege.’ It’s a terrific scene, and it tells us everything we need to know about Donovan.
But mostly, the stakes aren’t very high for him. As he walks to a meeting at the Soviet embassy in East Berlin, the ruined city seems dangerous and menacing. It’s beautifully acted and filmed. But he’s really not actually in much danger. He’s a remarkable man, and I applaud Spielberg for telling his story. But his task doesn’t really endanger him. Or at least, not much. In fact, throughout the East Berlin scenes, we’re told repeatedly that he’s suffering from a head cold. And that does complicate things for the poor guy. But that’s all.
So it’s a very interesting and engaging film, and I liked it very much indeed. And I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s up for an Academy Award. But I don’t think it’s going to win. It’s an A-minus film, and one I’m glad we finally saw. Films don’t have to have a protagonist up against life-threatening odds. Sometimes a threat to his integrity can carry a film. That’s what happens here.