In a derelict Brooklyn apartment, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) examines himself in a mirror. It’s 1957, and it’s nearing the height of the Cold War. The wrinkles on his face speak to an indefinite exhaustion. His motions are slow, measured. In front of him rests a half-finished self portrait, etched with a dark, muted color. There is no music, only the blended cacophony of New York City seeping through the windows and walls. He silently receives a phone call, and then leaves with his painting supplies to complete his mission. So begins “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg’s latest historical thriller.
The film’s overture places every detail with excruciating care — crafting the tone, palate and thematic resonance of the film with nothing but action and diegetic sound. In the background of Abel’s quiet reverie, FBI agents trail him through the city, constantly losing and regaining him in the subway crowds. He returns home with a nickel peeled off the bottom of a park bench and sets to prying it open with a razor blade marked “Made in the U.S.A.” A Russian spy, Rudolf Abel examines the folded, coded paper within the coin through a large magnifying lens. The camera, in turn, examines him from below, through the glass.
Rylance’s performance is a portrayal of few words and incredible presence, and Spielberg directs the sequence into one that is as beautiful as it is restrained. In an interview with The Daily Californian, Spielberg notes, “Rylance found the simplicity in the writing of Rudolf Abel, not to complicate it but to even make it more quiet and more mysterious.”
Enter James P. Donovan (Tom Hanks). An insurance lawyer who worked a stint as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Donovan is a poster child of American virtue. Tasked with defending Abel in court and demonstrating the ideals to which America extends even to its enemies, Donovan is met consistently with stonewalls highlighting the reality that the trial is nothing but a show to everyone else involved. But Donovan is clever as well as idealistic. He successfully convinces the judge of Abel’s usefulness as a potential trade with the Russians, saving him from the execution chair.
Soon enough, American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers is shot down and paraded on trial in Russia, and Donovan travels to East Berlin under CIA orders to make the swap that both countries deny involvement with. Donovan navigates this political minefield by remaining steadfast to his values, so much so that it begins to feel a little preachy. But Hanks brings an honesty and likability to the role that goes a long way to ameliorate that tendency. He smoothly blends charisma, humility and irony into a character that we become genuinely interested in.
Once Donovan’s mission has taken its twists and turns, the US and Russian spies gather on the Glienicke Bridge in East Berlin to make the trade.
It was the most difficult scene to shoot by far, Spielberg revealed in a phone interview with the Daily Cal. “Whenever I’m faced with a scene that must pay off, must culminate the drama of everyone’s stories, especially on one location … there was a lot of weight on all of us to make that the best scene in the movie.”
From an artistic perspective, the scene doesn’t match the restrained eloquence of the opening sequence, but that moment on the bridge brings all the suspense building through the second half of the film to a boiling point in classic Spielberg storytelling.
Where the film excels, and steps away from other historical Cold War films, is in its ability to inject humor into its dreary, cold and murky landscape. In a poignant motif, Donovan is continuously surprised by Abel’s quiet acceptance of the increasingly dangerous and incredible events, asking him several times why he isn’t frightened. Abel always replies, “Would it help?”
Hanks is equally affable, diffusing terse scenes and adding a realistic shade of ironic complexity to the historical portrayal — 1957 couldn’t have been as wholeheartedly dour as “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” would have us believe. “Humor to me is just a natural byproduct of being alive,” Spielberg said. “The worse the situation, the more the characters need to find something to distract themselves from the imminent dangers.”
Humor aside, the film also turns a critical lens onto America, contrasting Donovan’s principled stance with the panicked reactionism of the time. To Spielberg, “Donovan … is a great example of what we need more of today, not only in the diplomatic world but on Capitol Hill.” In a world of dualities — East and West, good and evil, government and civilian — Donovan represents what it means to understand, but not be controlled by fear. In doing so, he becomes a critique of those escalating voices that call to abandon ideals of law and due process in the face of perceived external threats (cough, cough, terrorism).
As the film concludes, Donovan sits on a subway train, an ordinary man having been thrown into extraordinary circumstances and done extraordinary things. Text on the screen informs us that several years later, he successfully negotiated the return of thousands of political prisoners from Cuba. To contemporary cynical ears, the idea that “doing the right thing” could be so successful would seem fantastical, but the reality of those stories is a powerful message.
Contact Imad Pasha at [email protected].