Movie Review: Bridge of Spies

By Matthew Huntley

October 22, 2015

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

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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.

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