Movie Review: Bridge of Spies
By Matthew Huntley
October 22, 2015

I'm looking for my friend? Wilson? Perhaps you've seen him.

At its beginning, Bridge of Spies leads us to believe it’s going to be a traditional courtroom drama about a level-headed lawyer who must defend a man whom everybody automatically assumes is guilty - everyone except the lawyer, that is. Through reasons of conscience and due process, he’s determined to operate under the guiding principle that anyone accused of a crime is “innocent until proven guilty,” despite the repercussions such a stance will have on him, his family and his career.

And while the film is about this to a degree, it’s not all it’s about, and around the one-third mark, Bridge of Spies begins to add unexpected developments to its story. Even though it’s based on fact, director Steven Spielberg and the three screenwriters still could have chosen to play things safe and simply glossed over or rushed through the less “Hollywood” events, but they take their time with it and really delve into the thickness of the situation. As a result, the film informs and challenges us just as the plot simultaneously intensifies.

The story recounts a well-known case mandated to James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a New York City lawyer who began his career as a criminal attorney but who eventually segued into insurance. In 1957, amidst the Cold War, Donovan’s law partners, Thomas Watters Jr. (Alan Alda) and John Rue (Lynn Goodnough), ask him to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a seemingly gentle old man whom the FBI has been watching for some time on suspicions he’s a Soviet spy and whom they’ve recently arrested based on questionable evidence. The Federal Government asks Watters and Rue to take his case and they accept it because they feel it’s their patriotic duty, although it’s obvious their real motivation is they think the notoriety will be a good PR move because it will be their organization that helps convict a Soviet spy, who was America’s sworn enemy at the time. Watters and Rue, along Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews), believe the matter will essentially be open and shut, and indeed the judge flippantly says to Donovan, “Let’s just get this over with.”

But Donovan isn’t about to compromise his integrity just to expedite the proceedings or to merely get in good with the public. He rightly sees Abel as an “alleged” criminal and not as an automatic enemy, and he vows to defend him as a man who has the same rights as any other client. Of course, no one else shares Donovan’s perspective, including his wife Mary (Amy Ryan), who’s nervous about the effect the case will have on her family since her husband will now be viewed as a Soviet sympathizer and traitor.

Still, Donovan sticks to his guns and convinces the judge that, despite his convicting Abel for conspiracy, keeping him alive could prove to be in the best interest of the country because Donovan knows there are American spies just like Abel in the Soviet Union and if one of them was to be captured, the U.S. treating Abel civilly and with honor could persuade the Soviets to do the same to their guys. Plus, Abel could also become a potential bargaining chip.

As it turns out, in a parallel plot, the U.S. military recruits a group of air force pilots for a mission to fly custom jets over the Soviet Union and take pictures using highly sophisticated cameras. One of these pilots is Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) and during his endeavor, the Soviets shoot him down, but rather than self-sacrifice like he was told, Powers ejects himself and is subsequently captured. Later on, in an unrelated case that will eventually relate to both Powers’ and Abel’s, an American graduate student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested in East Germany on suspicions of being a spy just as the German Democratic Republic is erecting the Berlin Wall.

Because of Donovan’s personal connection with Abel, the Federal Governments asks him to go to East Germany as a “private citizen,” and not as a representative of the government, to speak with the Soviet ambassador. His objective: strike a deal that would exchange Abel for Powers. But upon hearing about Pryor, Donovan takes it upon himself to take the deal even further and, in separate negotiations, asks that the Germans release Pryor as well. So he makes it his own mission to have the Soviets release Powers and the Germans release Pryor, both in exchange for Abel, whom both Germany and the Soviet Union have a vested interest.

History aside, the drama and suspense of Bridge of Spies stems from Donovan’s sheer will and whether or not his convictions will survive the odds and stakes that are pitted against him. The film paints him as an obvious hero and good guy, and Hanks, as usual, lends the character an everyman, down-to-earth quality. Naturally, we like and admire him, which is one of the reasons it’s so easy to get involved in this story. But in addition to that, Bridge of Spies shares the same kind of storytelling as Ridley Scott’s The Martian in that the plot continually adds hurdles for its characters to deal with and attempt to overcome. Just when we think things are going to play out smoothly and in their favor, new dilemmas arise, and we’re honestly not fully convinced Donovan’s determination and strategy will win out, which makes it all the more engaging. Of course, there’s the lingering notion that because this is, in fact, a mainstream Hollywood movie, the ending will inevitably be a happy one, but Spielberg and his writers don’t make it an all-out guarantee, and that’s what makes it so watchable right up to a key scene that takes place on two different bridges in Germany. The tension builds and builds until finally…

Well, I won’t reveal what happens, but I will say the film pays off both dramatically and as an intriguing historical document. It’s also a crowning technical achievement, with production designer Adam Stockhausen, who won a well-deserved Oscar for The Grand Budapest Hotel, creating a dark, brooding atmosphere and faithfully recreating a 1950s New York City and Berlin that transports us to a different time and world altogether. You wouldn’t think a dramatic thriller would be so striking and absorbing on a visual level, but Bridge of Spies is.

I’m not sure how I feel about the film’s closing scene, which perhaps goes one step too far with its romance and bookending a previous shot just to bring the story full circle. This is the kind of Hollywood underlining that Spielberg sometimes finds hard to resist just so he can appease and bring comfort to the audience. Luckily, it’s more unnecessary than harmful, but I still wish he’d chosen a more subtle approach. Still, the essence of the story remains intact and the film serves as a veritable thriller as well as an intriguing history lesson.