During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR are on opposite sides of ideology, economic goals and political aspirations. Espionage is the order of the day, with each side sending spies to the other side (or tapping conversations when possible).
Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is just that. A Cold War spy film starring Tom Hanks as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer asked to take on a volatile case involving a Russian spy, Rudolf Abe (Mark Rylance) napped by F.B.I. agents while in his small apartment in Brooklyn in 1957.
Donovan, like Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird in 1962, takes on an unpopular and potentially career wrecking move by defending a man who is simply guilty by accusations. Hanks, in his James Stewart-esque style, embraces Abel’s case by citing the Constitution, avoiding the anti-communist demagoguery of the time. Donovan’s challenges are many, such as failing to convince an unsympathetic Judge Byers (Dakin Matthew) willing to send Abel to the electric chair.
Fast forward to 1962 in East Germany, the Stasi are building the Berlin Wall (I’m old enough to remember), it’s nearly finished, sending hundreds of East Berliners into panic trying to get to the West side of Berlin. When an American spy plane with Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the Soviet Union, things become much more sticky between the two countries. A Yale graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) trying to flee back to West Berlin detained and jailed by the Stasi. And sending Donovan over to the Iron Curtain for the swap (Abel on U.S. soil back to Russia; Powers and Pryor on Iron Curtain soil back to the U.S.) makes for much less red tape than sending a diplomat.
Bridge of Spies is in the vain of Martin Ritt’s 1965 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, starring Richard Burton. Donovan is on a mission for justice and fairness, that’s why he’s embracing the Constitution fully. Bridge of Spies has an entelechy about the Cold War; so does Tomas Alfredson’s sound espionage thriller, taking place in the 1970s, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), the later though is considerably more complicated than the former.
Donovan does have a family: wife Mary (Amy Ryan), three children Peggy (Jillian Lebling), Roger (Noah Schnapp) and Carol (Eve Hewson). None of them have much camera time; but neither does Donovan’s boss Thomas Watters, Jr. (Alan Alda). But why squabble over that when James Donovan is the centerpiece? When the Oscar bandwagon comes down the path it is likely to stop at Bridge of Spies station.
(PG-13) Running time: 141 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Ethan and Joel Coen
Cast: Tom Hanks (James Donovan), Mark Rylance (Rudolf Abel), John Scott Sheperd (Hoffman), Amy Ryan (Mary Donovan), Alan Alda (Thomas Watters Jr), Dakin Matthews (Judge Byers), Austin Stowell (Francis Gary Powers)Will Rogers (Frederic Pryor), Sebastian Koch ((Vogel)
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