Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is a Soviet spy operating out of his Brooklyn, New York neighborhood. He is captured by federal agents and, after failing to get him to cooperate and become a double agent, plan on putting him on trial for espionage. If convicted, he would likely be executed. James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is an insurance lawyer with a major New York firm. He is approached by the government to act as legal counsel for Abel. Despite not having practiced criminal law in decades, Donovan agrees. Meanwhile, the CIA is interviewing Air Force pilots to fly the U2 spy plane over Soviet territory and take pictures of various installations. One of those pilots is Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Powers and several others are accepted into the program and trained on how to operate the aircraft and what to do should they be shot down: Set the self-destruct mechanism in the plane and, if they are near a friendly border, bail out. Otherwise, they are instructed to go down with the plane. If they do bail out and face capture, they are supposed to commit suicide using a poisoned needle. Abel goes on trial and despite Donovan’s best efforts is convicted. He is sentenced to 30 years in prison. Powers goes up on his first mission and despite assurances the plane flew higher than Soviet defenses could shoot, his plane is hit by missiles and the damage blows him out of the cockpit, preventing him from setting off the self-destruct. Powers is captured and put on trial where he is found guilty and sentenced to a long term in a Russian prison. A cryptic letter received by Donovan from someone claiming to be Abel’s wife sets in motion a series of events that leads him to becoming the unofficial negotiator of a prisoner swap between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: The spy Rudolf Abel for the spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers with the exchange to take place in the newly walled off East Berlin.
“Bridge of Spies” is not a film to watch if you are looking for action and adventure…at least the way it is depicted in the run-of-the-mill Hollywood movie. The excitement of “Bridge of Spies” comes from the knowledge that much of what is being shown on screen actually happened. A common man with no connection to the government was called upon to defend an accused Soviet spy at the height of the Cold War when doing so likely made him, in the eyes of the country, a traitor. He argued for the rights of a man that wasn’t a citizen but should be given every privilege the Constitution provides in regards to his criminal case. It was a brave stand to take at a time when just being connected to the American Communist Party could get you fired from your job.
There’s no better person to portray a man of singular courage and strongly held beliefs than Tom Hanks. Hanks makes Donovan an everyman with an uncommon sense of fairness. With the twinkle in his eye and the soft spoken delivery we’ve come to know, love and expect, Hanks portrays Donovan as a zealous advocate that can verbally beat you to death with logic and knowledge and make you feel the better for it. Even when he comes up against a judge that has already made up his mind and ignores all of his constitutionally based arguments about the evidence, Donovan maintains his cool despite his abhorrence at the miscarriage of justice being forced upon his client. Donovan doesn’t mind being less subtle when he’s pressured by a CIA agent to tell him what Abel has said in their meetings. Hanks can fix a stare at the target of his wrath that could peel paint off a wall; yet, when he schools the agent on the constitution, it is done with firmness but gentleness.
Hanks is a fantastic actor that seems like a fantastic person. I’ve heard him interviewed by Chris Hardwick a couple of times on Hardwick’s “Nerdist” podcast. Hanks appears as down to earth and average as any of his roles. Whether he’s playing a ship captain being held at gunpoint by Somali pirates or the lead astronaut on a trip to the moon that goes horribly wrong, Tom Hanks always seems to play his role with understated strength and calm that makes the moments when his character loses that calm all the more affecting. (Spoiler Alert) At the end of “Captain Phillips,” when he’s been rescued and is finally safe, Hanks does a slow meltdown that gives me chills to this day when I think about it. The veneer of control that slowly melts away into unbridled shaking and tears is one of the greatest and most emotional pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. It breaks your heart thinking about what could drive a man to such a break down and, even though we’ve seen all he’s been through and completely understand, it still hits you like a bolt from the blue. While the deeply emotional scene in “Bridge of Spies” isn’t as striking as “Captain Phillips” it resonates all the same because of how we see Donovan behave throughout the film. This may not have been as wrenching a performance as his AIDS suffering lawyer in “Philadelphia” or as sympathetic as “Forrest Gump,” Hanks is still likely to be in the running for a nomination when awards season rolls around.
While Hanks is the focus of the story, the other terrific performance in “Bridge of Spies” comes from Mark Rylance as the stoic Russian spy Rudolf Abel. The scenes he and Hanks share are usually brief but they are powerful. Rylance gives a quiet performance that makes Hanks almost look like Jim Carrey in “The Mask.” His Soviet spy is resigned to whatever fate is to befall him, sometimes at the chagrin of Donovan. More than once in the film Donovan asks Abel if he is worried. Each time the answer is “Would it help?” The unspoken answer is of course no. Rylance plays Abel as both a confused old man as well as a crafty operative. Once he’s caught, the cover of confusion is cast aside and he’s strictly business. The way Rylance plays Abel made me curious about the character. I’d like to see a movie about how he became a Soviet spy and the adventures he had. While the spy world isn’t nearly as glamourous and exciting as we see in “James Bond” movies, I’m certain in the hands of someone like “Bridge of Spies” director Steven Spielberg the story would be more than worth watching.
The movie could be seen as commentary on how easy it is to question ones patriotism in a time of crisis. Donovan’s allegiance to America is questioned a couple of times in the film because he fights for Abel’s rights as a defendant in the courts. Since the attacks of 9/11, the loyalty of Americans has been questioned that believe those being held on terrorism charges in Guantanamo Bay should be accorded the right to representation and trial by jury. Others don’t see the problem of collecting the phone calls, emails and internet history of average Americans without probable cause asking, “Why should I worry since I have nothing to hide?” Despite the “common sense” appeal of that sentiment, Ben Franklin is often quoted as saying “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Franklin’s quote, taken out of context from a letter to the Pennsylvania colonial governor, has very little to do with what we associate it with today; however, the conflict between Donovan and those that wish he wouldn’t try so hard to defend Abel and those that want terrorism suspects quickly tried and convicted and those that believe they should be given the same fair trial as an American citizen is painfully similar. Your opinion of the film might depend on your feelings about that argument.
“Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some violence. Gun shots hit Donovan’s house in an attempt to intimidate him. We see Francis Gary Powers roughed up a little by Russian interrogators. We see some people trying to get over the Berlin Wall shot by guards. There are other brief bits of violence. Foul language is scattered and mostly mild but the film does get its maximum allowed number of “F-Bombs.”
Many may find “Bridge of Spies” to be dull as it mostly consists of people talking. I would argue anyone that finds this movie dull is not paying enough attention. The stakes faced by the characters, the time in history and the brilliant acting make the film a true gem in what is often a mound of coal lumps. If you care nothing for the past, the old Soviet Union and the threat of mutually assured nuclear annihilation then you should avoid this film at all costs. If you have even the slightest curiosity about what America was like during the hottest part of the Cold War, then “Bridge of Spies” is a must see. I would also recommend it if you just like really well done movies.