Bridge of Spies
Bridge of Spies
(Amblin, DreamWorks, 2015)
In 1957, America was coming to grips with the fact that a nuclear war (the Atom Bomb) could destroy the Earth. Spying between Russia (the USSR) and America (the US) was the order of the day as school children were taught what to do in case of a Russian attack.
More than any movie I’ve seen, Bridge of Spies puts you back into that time. Men dominate the workforce, they smoke incessantly at work, and everything is in its place. Plotwise, a secret program of aerial spying on Russia is about to begin, and a Russian spy has been arrested in the United States. This spy is quiet, older man, an artist (and in this movie a really nice guy) who needs a lawyer.
Insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) fits right into the American Dream of the 5’0s. Two kids, a loving wife, a good job. All of that changes when he gets picked to defend the Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. Abel deserves a fair trial, and who would be better to defend him than an insurance lawyer? Do you get the feeling that maybe the plan was for him to be convicted without any problems?
But Donovan has other plans. He thinks Abel should be properly defended and starts to poke holes in the prosecutor’s case. Part of his argument is that the US may just need a spy to trade someday.
Wouldn’t you know it; one of the US pilots taking pictures over Russia, Francis Gary Powers, gets hit by a Russian missile. In a scene reminiscent of Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove, the pilot is hanging onto his plane as it goes down. He’s supposed to blow himself up so the Russians can’t capture him, but capture him they do.
So now the Americans have a pilot imprisoned in Russia and a Russian spy to trade for him. Lawyer Donovan is sent to Europe to negotiate the trade.
This part of the story is on Wikipedia. It really happened, between 1957 and 1960. But Bridge of Spies takes the story and weaves it into a tale of human nature, in a way only Stephen Spielberg can do.
You see, every one of the characters here is a real person, and Spielberg treats them as such. Even the people on Donovan’s bus into work, seeing his picture in the paper as the spy lawyer, just radiate their hatred of him. Another event we get to see is the building of the Berlin Wall in Germany, as people are trapped on one side from loved ones on the other. Even the East German politicians get involved, playing games as intermediaries with the Americans and the Russians.
Spielberg is known for his cinematic treatments of period history, including Schindler’s List and Catch Me if You Can, but in my opinion, Bridge of Spies tops even these. The immersion in the story is remarkable, and Tom Hanks is perfect at capturing the confusion and conflict of an American lawyer. As a result, we share his emotions and live the events with him.
Such moviemaking is basic, even elementary to making a good film. But this is so rare today, in an age of car chases and shootouts, that when an actual masterpiece comes along, we truly remember why we go to the movies.
Bridge of Spies is rate PG-13 for a four-letter word. Older kids on up to the grandparents should see this film. Enjoy!