“Bridge of Spies” is a triumph of a movie. Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers have cobbled together a little known but significant Cold War event with likeable main characters and a story of honor.
Based on actual events, the film conflates five years of tension between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. when each country had one of the other nation’s spies. What must have been five long, tedious years for these characters—whether negotiating, or waiting in prison, suffering the hatred of one’s neighbors, watching the Berlin Wall go up or learning the hard way that the U.S. Constitution can be cast aside when national interests are at stake—is turned into 141 minutes of intriguing film.
The set up includes several lives that later intersect. Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, Wolf Hall) appears to be a retiree who likes to paint and take his easel around Brooklyn. He is, however, being followed at every turn by government men. When he picks up a drop left for him, U.S. authorities arrest him. He is assigned a lawyer so that due process will have been served.
Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is that lawyer, a family man and successful insurance attorney who had served as assistant to Justice Jackson at the Nuremberg Trials. Donovan is drafted by the Bar Association to defend the Soviet spy. Apparently, he is expected to just play the part. Instead he stands up for justice for his client and thereby makes himself an object of loathing across Cold War America.
Later we watch as U.S. Air Force pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), gets selected and trained to “drive” a U-2 spy plane, flying secret photographic missions across Russia. On one of these missions, his plane is shot down and he is captured.
Then, in Berlin, an American doctoral student from Yale, Fredrick Prior (Will Rogers), has completed his dissertation and goes to help his professor’s family leave East Berlin as the wall is being built. He fails in the attempt and is arrested.
Abel and Donovan gain mutual respect as Abel’s case goes to trial and is appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. After Powers is captured, the Soviets seem willing to trade him for Abel. Donovan goes to bat for getting both Powers and Prior released in exchange for Abel. Contrary to the instructions of his CIA handlers, who are only focused on Powers, Donovan succeeds in getting both Americans released.
Bridge of Spies takes us back to a time of fear in this nation while highlighting a little known heroic lawyer. It is well worth your time and money to see this PG-13 film. Besides, I think it may well be nominated as an Oscar contender.