This last year and a bit has been a strangely prolific time for the movie making business when it comes to spy movies. An unusual number of high profile projects have made it to the screens, most of which have got some connection to the 1960’s. Either they are based on TV shows from that era (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Man from UNCLE) or they are parts of movie franchises that take started then (Spectre). They may even take place in those earlier decades (The Man from UNCLE, again, or even Minions, which is not a spy movie of course, but parts of which have that kind of vibe), or they are intentionally trying to capture the feel of movies of movies that do (Kingsman: The Secret Service).
Some of these films were enjoyable, some were not, but none of them would ever be accused of being serious drama. That is, unless Spectre defies all expectations (I haven’t seen it yet).
The recent 60’s-centric spy movie that is serious drama, though? Bridge of Spies.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying necessarily that Serious Drama is intrinsically a higher art form than fun action thriller. But for me, an engaging drama is perhaps a bit of a rarer thing than fantasy action thriller, and harder to pull off. Bridge of Spies succeeds in this, and so the fact that it doesn’t come across as yet another action spy film makes it stand out in a way that none of those other films do.
I know I’m a bit late to the party here, but the story is based on the true experiences of a lawyer named James B. Donovan, played by Tom Hanks. In the 1960’s, around the time when the Berlin wall was being built, a KGB spy named Rudolf Abel is captured on American soil. The US decides they need to make a good show of putting on a capable legal defense for him, to prove to the world that their justice system is fair and impartial. Donovan is tasked with the unenviable task of defending this presumed traitor, earning him the ire of his neighbors, the general public and to a certain degree, his family. The expectation is that Donovan will put on a good defense, but not too good, as it’s presumed by nearly everyone involved that eventually Abel will have to be executed for his crimes. But Donovan is not the sort to do things by half measures, and once he is in for a penny, he’s in for a pound, and he gives it his all.
In the end, Abel is found guilty, but Donovan manages to successfully argue for something less than the death sentence, under the “insurance” argument: someday, Abel may be a useful bargaining chip if ever a similarly valuable US prisoner of war is captured.
Of course, this is what happens. A US armed serviceman, Francis Gary Powers, is shot down and captured by German and Russian forces. Because Donovan is known in the media, he is contacted by the Germans to begin the delicate process of negotiating this prisoner exchange. But then he discovers something else: there is another prisoner – Frederic Pryor, a young student accused (but innocent) of spying, has been captured. The US government does not consider him a priority: after all, his head isn’t full of classified information, but when Donovan discovers about him, he refuses to seal the deal unless he can have both prisoners. Complicating this is the fact that the two prisoners are technically in the hands of different forces: Powers is with the Russians, while Pryor is with the Germans—technically allies but with different political agendas.
All this leads to some masterful suspense as James Donovan must contend with Russians, Germans, and his own American superiors to do what he thinks is right.
Bridge of Spies is a strong piece of work that earns its tension with honest-to-goodness drama and a near-complete lack of silly contrivances. The characters are treated honestly and with dignity. Director Steven Spielberg’s hand behind the camera is restrained and even, allowing the relationships and the events themselves to drive the story forward. The performances by the cast are strong, without any show-boating. Especially impressive is Mark Rylance, who plays German Spy Rudolf Abel. His relationship with Donovan is a highlight of the movie, and it’s interesting to see them come to realize that though they are in different nationalistic camps, they actually share many core values.
But of course, the star of the show is Tom Hanks himself, who makes James Donovan into someone we can relate to and understand, while still revealing him as a masterful negotiator. It reminds me a bit of another Hanks film that I like, Apollo 13. It’s a very different movie, of course, but in both Tom Hanks presents himself as a secure lead who recognizes that his own work is stronger if everyone else has the opportunity to shine as well.
I also appreciate the “message” of the film, which is delivered without any great sentimentality and simply on the basis of the events that are taking place themselves. And that is simply that every life is important. When Donovan learns about Frederic Pryor, he simply refuses to give up on the idea of bringing him home as well, even though he is of no strategic importance to any government. Watching him eventually pull this off is highly satisfactory—quiet but excellent filmmaking.
So yeah, I recommend Bridge of Spies pretty highly. It’s a solid production for which all the pieces hold together well and are carried with the artistry of some undeniably talented people in front of and behind the camera.