In the early days of the Cold War, tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. rose to a fevered pitch as anti-Communist paranoia spread across the United States. It’s little wonder the arrest of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Brooklyn in 1957 saw many people clamoring for his execution with few lawyers willing to take his case.
So starts DreamWorks and Fox 2000 Pictures’ new film Bridge of Spies. Set against a backdrop of real events, this Cold War dramatic thriller, penned by Joel and Ethan Coen, is the story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), former U.S. Navy officer, General Counsel for the Office of Strategic Services during WWII, and prosecutor of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials. Bridge of Spies starts well after the war, with Abel’s (Mark Rylance) arrest. Donovan, whose anti-Communist and pro-American credentials are impeccable, was living in Brooklyn with his family at the time, working as an insurance lawyer.
“He was a prosecutor of the Nuremberg War Crimes,” Hanks said of Donovan. “That means he wasn’t the type of soldier that went off and wanted to kill as many Nazis as possible; he was a guy who wanted to nail as many Nazis as possible, using the letter of the law.”
Abel is questioned by the FBI but refuses to cooperate, declining their offer to turn on his country, and is detained in federal prison pending trial. Donovan is highly regarded within the legal community for his profound skills as a negotiator, but has little experience with allegations of this nature and magnitude and isn’t eager to get involved. Advocating such a deeply unpopular defense would make him a public figure and subject his family to scrutiny, disdain, and potential danger.
“It was simply a piece of history that was so compelling,” Spielberg said. “Personally for me, to know that something like this, a man who stood on his principles and defied everybody hating him and his family for what he thought he needed to do —equal protection under the law, even for an alien in this country, even for a Soviet accused spy. That was, to me, a righteous reason to tell the story.”
Donovan eventually agrees to represent Abel, as he is committed to the principles of justice and the protection of basic human rights and wants to ensure Abel receives a fair trial, regardless of his citizenship. As he prepares his defense strategy, a bond begins to develop between the two men, one built on mutual respect and understanding. Donovan admires Abel’s strength and loyalty and mounts an impassioned plea, arguing that his actions were that of a good soldier following instructions on his country’s behalf, but to no avail.
“The real Donovan, when he was defending Abel, was interviewed at the courthouse,” Hanks recalled,” and said the reason why he took the case, and the reason why he carried it all the way to the Supreme Court: ‘You can’t accuse this man of treason. He’s not a traitor. He’s actually a patriot to his cause. Only an American can be a traitor, only an American can commit treason against their own country. He’s [Abel] just a man doing his job, in the same way we have men doing their jobs over here.’ As soon as you start torturing the people we have, you give the other side permission and cause to do the same exact thing. That’s not what America stands for — as soon as you start executing anybody you think has gone against your country, you’re not that far removed from the KGB and the Stasi. That’s not what America was about. This is what Donovan took with him from the get-go.”
Sometime later, an American U-2 spy plane is shot down over Soviet airspace while on a reconnaissance mission. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison in the U.S.S.R. The CIA, denying any knowledge of the mission, fears Powers may be coerced into revealing classified information. Having witnessed Donovan’s skills in the courtroom, CIA operative Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) secretly reaches out to recruit him for a national security mission of great importance. Fueled by a love for his country, unwavering belief in his convictions and a tremendous amount of courage, Donovan is soon on a plane to Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
“I like making pictures about people who are – who have a personal mission in life, or at least in the story, the life in the story,” said director Steven Spielberg. “Who start out in a certain, with certain low expectations, and then overachieve our highest expectations for them. That’s the kind of character arc I love dabbling in as a director, as a filmmaker.”
Through Donovan’s story, we get a chilling view of the events which would dominate much of the rest of the 20th century. Interactions with the German Democratic Republic (GDR — East Germany), the Stasi (East German Secret Police), and how East German-Russian relations would come to divide the people of Germany and the entire world. Spielberg recreates everything in painstaking detail, from The U.S. Air Force uniforms of the the era and the U-2 shootdown at 70,000 feet to 1962 Berlin and the brutality of the Berlin Wall.
“We shot that on the border of Poland and Germany, in a town called Breslau. [The Polish name is] Wroclaw,” Spielbeg recalled. “And there’s still bullet holes in all the buildings from World War II there, they never repaired it. So we went to the area closest to the east of Berlin, that looked just like East Berlin, and we actually built that wall.”
Spielberg’s fascination with the Cold War dates back to childhood, when he remembers his father and grandfather and their stories of the deep- seeded feelings of animosity and distrust which existed between the U.S. and Russia at the time.
“It was a very dangerous time to be in the headlines for standing up for a spy,” Spielberg added, “Because as a kid growing up, I felt a tremendous sense of fear of the Atomic bomb and Soviet Russia.”
Just as Spielberg created the cold, blue, slightly desaturated look that would come to define World War II movies and shows in years to come, he may have just done the same for the Postwar years in Bridge of Spies. He creates a bright, dreamy world with an almost comic-book like use of color. The colors are vivid in the areas which overshadow the characters, such as the green Stasi uniforms of the GDR and red Soviet flags. Everywhere in the film, the lights are bright and the shadows are dark, creating a stark contrast on par with the contrast of East vs. West.
The film isn’t all drama. There are great humorous moments peppered throughout the film with Hanks’ trademark dry wit. Every time Hanks is on screen with someone else, the interplay takes the film to another level. Bridge of Spies is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Outstanding performances by Amy Ryan (Birdman, Gone Baby Gone) as Donovan’s wife Mary, and Alan Alda (M*A*S*H, The Aviator) as his boss Thomas Watters round out an excellent cast who deliver the quality we’ve come to expect from such an elite group every minute they’re on screen. The cast, a script written English dramatist Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, with Spielberg’s masterful direction complete the essential elements for a truly engaging, entertaining film.