Bridge of Spies

Disney Touchstone Pictures.         2 hrs 15 minutes        PG 13

When U-2 Pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was shot down over the Soviet Union during the Cold War and held captive as a spy, Americans went bonkers. It’s a pretty famous story. But the story about the machinations of freeing him is not.

British screenwriter Matt Charman piqued Dreamworks’ Director Steven Spielberg interest with a tale about a insurance lawyer, James Donovan, who represented Soviet Spy Rudolf Abels. The U.S. Government asked Donovan to negotiate a spy swap and he ends up freeing not one, but three men. Abels and an American student in Germany caught on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall.

Gregory Peck tried to make this film in 1965 with Alec Guinness as Abels.  This was soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis had been averted, but the tensions were too high and MGM decided to stay out of this sensitive political situation.

Spielberg checked the facts Charman presented and found them to be surprisingly true! He cast Hanks as lawyer Donovan because he thought it was a good fit. Donovan was a principled man who put his life and family at risk. He was hell-bent on making sure America’s reputation of “justice for all” was respected with due process, regardless of what side of the (Iron) Curtain you were on.

Spielberg and Hanks knew each other way before they made films together. This is their 4th project. They lived in the same neighborhood and ran the kids to school at the same time each morning. Mutual respect is obvious. Hanks loves Spielberg’s vision. Spielberg loves Hanks’ sincerity and says he is the “perfect collaborator” having added a lot to the movie. Spielberg’s directing is deliberate, giving Hanks and Amy Ryan (the Office) as Donovan’s wife, time to create their characters’ without over editing. Hanks calls Ryan a miracle. “She’s hardly doing anything and yet she’s doing everything, all at the same time.” He says he has to learn that. We think he already knows how.

There are a lot of hand-held follow shots making you feel as though you are in the situation with Donovan and his family. Tension builds as you don’t know exactly where he’s going or what could happen when he gets there.

Hanks relationship on screen with Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abels is remarkable.  Rylance is known as an accomplished stage actor who has a wide repertoire. As a suspected Soviet Spy you want to hate him. But his empathetic scenes with Hanks make you feel for the man.

Rylance has respect for the master director. He says Spielberg is always thinking of the audience. He’s always trying to figure out what they know or don’t so he can set them up for dips and dives like a roller coaster without having to say it in dialogue. Rylance’s has the ultimate poker face which works well.  

We thought of this film as a gentler, non-violent look at a different kind of war than  WWII seen in Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. This was a chess game with only one weapon; nuclear threat. Donovan had to play a  game of highly strategic and touchy negotiations when Russia or America could push the button at any time.

Spielberg brings out the irony of this unlikely lawyer being tapped for such important negotiations in the first part of the film. There is a lot of well-timed humor. He sets the tone of that era beautifully with historic detail in the costumes, sets, and TV shows at that time. They show how the whole nation was whipped up to a frenzy over the Powers-Abels spy swap.

It takes awhile to set up the details of why Abels, Powers and an American student being held in East Germany become intertwined. It bogs down a little at that point, but picks up after you realize what Donovan is going for.

The scenes showing the history of the Berlin Wall and Donovan witnessing people desperately trying to escape to the West are chilling. We have forgotten how many paid with their lives.

Austin Stowell, who plays Powers, talks about the pilot was who was shot down doing surveillance and sentenced to 10 years in a Soviet prison. Stowell is in awe of how one man could have an effect on so many. He flew dangerous missions for the CIA just wanting to serve his country. After his release, Powers continued flying and ended up as the operator of one of the first camera equipped helicopters to cover news for KNBC-TV Los Angeles. I worked with him in my very first news job. Coming back from a fire in Santa Barbara, he realized he didn’t have enough fuel to get back to Burbank and crashed trying to avoid hitting teens playing on a ball field. I knew him as a mild-mannered, soft-spoken gentleman who would do anything for anybody. It was hard for me to believe he had ever been involved in a mission of such serious geo-political importance. He never talked about it.

Is this worth your bucks? The forgotten story of an insurance lawyer fighting for American ideals on a global platform in 1957 seems unreal. This film shows in a very human way, what Donovan was up against. It’s smart without being forced. Hanks’ facial expressions broadcast what’s going on and you feel for him and for his family. Spielberg says the lawyer wanted to make “a moral example” and show the world how we treat people with respect in America and give everyone a fair trial. For Donovan, it was a case of doing what’s right. We can say the same for Spielberg and Hanks working together on this film.