Bridge of Spies ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the United States and the Soviet Union are at war. It isn’t the kind of war that’s waged on a battlefield, but a war of intelligence. Both sides are desperately trying to get military and strategic superiority through secret information that has to be stolen or gained surreptitiously by spies. It is a game of one-upmanship: If you can steal our secrets, we can steal yours.
In 1957 American agents capture a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) in Brooklyn. He isn’t what you would expect a spy to be. He is in his mid-fifties, soft-spoken, self-effacing and an artist who paints pictures. When a Brooklyn lawyer named Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) takes on the unpopular job of defending Rudolf Abel (on the theory that everybody, no matter what they’ve done, is entitled to due process and a fair trial), the two men become unlikely friends. When Abel is tried and found guilty, the popular sentiment is to send him to the electric chair, but Jim Donovan argues, successfully, that Abel might be used as a bargaining tool in the event that the Soviets capture an American spy.
American pilots are at this time flying spy missions over the Soviet Union in U2s. The U2 flies at 70,000 feet and is supposed to be undetectable, but one of them is shot down and the pilot, Gary Francis Powers, is taken prisoner. The Soviets hope to get all the valuable information they can from him before they let him go. The American side proposes a spy swap: we’ll give you Rudolf Abel if you give us Gary Francis Powers.
Bridge of Spies is about the negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to swap one spy for another, which turns out to be a delicate balancing act and one that might never come off, even when it seems it will. The Soviets, after all, are as tricky as they are allowed to be and don’t always play by American rules. Jim Donovan, the lawyer who defended Rudolf Abel, is the unofficial negotiator for the American government without being employed by the government in any capacity.
The spy swap is further complicated by the capture of an American college student in East Berlin named Frederic Pryor, just when the wall is being built. He’s in a very bad place at a bad time; the Soviets believe he is a spy and are in no hurry to release him. The American negotiator in the Abel-Powers spy swap makes the release of Frederic Pryor a condition of the trade. Will the Soviets comply, or will they engage in some of their nasty Cold War games?
Bridge of Spies is a weighty movie (as opposed to fluffy or brainless) on a weighty subject, so, if you’re looking for laughs, this is probably not what you’re looking for. It’s a “prestige” picture, directed by Steven Spielberg, the most famous of all current movie directors. (It’s interesting that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the screen play.) It’s a thoroughly satisfying movie, beautifully made in every detail, for the serious-minded among us. Talky at times but talking the talk that is worth hearing. You’re looking at a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.
Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp