Bridge of Spies ***
One Liner Review:
Call it 13 Days meets The Lives of Others, there’s a good movie here, really interesting and well-made, but it definitely gets a little too simple, moralistic, and preachy at times.
This is a clever little political thriller. Not that there are any major twists or turns or anything, but with Tom Hanks as the star, Speilberg in the director’s chair, and actor Mark Rylance in the role he won a best supporting oscar for, this thing is a pretty powerful hit. It’s more about deals and politics than it is about action or thrills, but when the stakes are two spies being traded for each other, and governments that can’t be trusted, the realm of espionage becomes a fun area to play around in. The movie has got two halves, marked out pretty clearly by a first half about the trial of the Russian spy and the second half about the deal to send him back. Both halves work. The film does get preachy and overly simplistic at times, mainly in the area of the Tom Hanks character, who is the beacon of morality, even when everyone else is against him. Still, it’s an enjoyable film.
Bridge of Spies is a pretty enjoyable Speilberg – Hanks vehicle. It’s a movie that takes place during the Cold War and deals with the Berlin Wall, prisoner exchanges, and the conflict between the U.S. and Russia. This film isn’t so much about spies as it is about the lawyers for these spies and the government decisions, actions, and deals, that will bring the spies back home. Basically this movie is much more of a political thriller than it is an action film. It’s a moralistic movie, like Crash or Lincoln, that carries a message on its shoulders. At times the film definitely borders on preachy, but it still manages to hold our interest the whole way through.
At the start of the film, we are following along with some CIA men in Brooklyn, who are pursuing a Russian spy. This spy is named Abel, and he is an older man, who doesn’t seem very interested in getting away from the chase. Whether he knows he is being pursued or not, Abel is tired and has done his job, and he’s in no mood or condition to take the CIA men for a run. Before he starts being followed, while back in his tiny apartment, Abel takes out a coin. He unscrews the top of the coin, separating the head from its outer shell. Then he dumps out a thin, scrolled up message that has been placed inside. Very cool stuff. This leads to the CIA men pursuing him and making the capture and arrest.
From there we move to James Donovan, (Tom Hanks,) negotiating an insurance deal for an auto accident where four or five people have been injured. Donovan is on the side of the insurance company that doesn’t want to pay anymore than it needs to. He makes the argument that this was one accident and that his company should only have to pay one fee. It sounds ridiculous now, but somehow Donovan ends up pulling it off, making the argument seem pretty reasonable. This is all just establishment, showing us how good Donovan is at his job and daily routine.
After watching Donovan at work, on a regular kind of deal, the movie takes his character into some new territory. Donovan’s company asks him to defend Abel. Now, Donovan is not a lawyer (although apparently he used to be one.) It’s strange that his insurance company is tasked with this, but it seems like the higher ups at the company (like Donovan’s boss, played by Alan Alda,) have volunteered for it. The company is definitely getting something out of this, whether it is publicity, money, or something more. It would have been nice if that angle had been addressed, even with a quick line or two, about the “why,” factor. Why is this insurance company being given this job?
Donovan naturally objects. It’s the classic heroes journey. He has to reject the mission. Then later on, he has to get so invested in it that he sacrifices himself for the cause. That doesn’t mean that he dies, but only that he puts himself at risk in order to pursue his goal. In this case, it’s not only him who gets sacrificed, but also his family. When Donovan takes on the case, he becomes incredibly unpopular to the point where his house is even attacked by people who shoot through his window and nearly hit one of his children.
The case itself is a trial. From the moment Donovan signs onto it, he has people approaching him, either to talk him out of trying the case, or to get information from him. First up is a man from the CIA. He sits down with Donovan at a bar (I believe this is Blue Bar, in Manhattan’s midtown east.) The man wants Donovan to reveal what Abel has been saying. Basically Donovan is being asked to violate attorney-client privilege in the interest of the country and natural security. He refuses. Not that Abel has actually told him information, anyway. But there’s a big deal made here about not violating trust, and Donovan stands behind that.
There’s a lot more conflict and parties who are against Abel and about to approach Donovan. With every new one of them, Donovan’s grip and view of what he needs to do, becomes more clear. His mission becomes about showing that Abel can receive a fair trial in America. After the CIA man at Blue Bar, Donovan finds himself going head to head with a judge. The judge believes that Donovan did his job by defending this guy, but other than that, the reality is that this man is a spy and needs to be locked up (and possibly executed,) for it. Donovan disagrees. He lets himself become driven by a moralistc code. The funny thing is that it really seems like everybody is against him, including his own wife, (played by the great Amy Ryan.) At a certain point, when you are sacrificing so much that your family is in danger and your wife has a problem with something, maybe the right thing to do is to stop doing it. The movie doesn’t address that. It presents Donovan as a man on a mission, detemined to do what’s right, even if the questions about whether or not what he’s doing really is right, are never asked.
This is very much a movie about bigotry. Instead of a film where a certain race is targeted,, in this case it is this Russian spy who is the source of anger for many Americans. There is a good case made by Donovan, that this man was just doing his job. He is doing the same thing for his country that our American spies are doing overseas, for us. We would want our spies who were captured by a foreign enemy to be treated kindly and given a fair trial, and that’s exactly what Donovan plans to do for Abel. It’s a take on the golden rule. There’s just one problem. We never get to hear the other side. We never hear the prosecution talk about what exactly Abel did. For example, were Americans killed because of information he passed on? What is their evidence against him? If he was sending intel back to Russia, then what was the content of this intel? I suppose the Americans don’t know the answers to these questions, which is why they approach Donovan about whether Abel told him anything, but then how do they prosecute someone without any evidence?
The movie makes it clear that exactly what Abel did is not the point. It’s actually a McGuffin. Instead, the point is about looking at the idea of capturing a spy from two sides. There’s our spy being captured over there, and then there’s the Russian spy, being captured over here. The first half of the movie is all about the trial, and the second half is about the trade. All of the conversations Donovan had with people about how this man should be treated the same way as we would like our spies to be treated if they are captured by the enemy, turns out to be foreshadowing. At the same time that we are watching Abel’s trial, early on in the film, we are cutting between that and scenes of fighter pilots being trained for a top secret mission. Their mission is to fly jets over the enemy territory and take photos of what they see below them. There is a camera that hangs underneath the jet and snaps photos as the jet flies by.
One of these American fighter pilots gets captured and becomes the other side of the coin in the prisoner exchange situation. The scene where the pilot is ejected from his plane is absolutely incredible. It’s the lone action scene in the film and boy does it look fantastic, as the camera moves all around this jet while the pilot hangs off the side of it. The second half of the film is all about Donovan going abroad to try and negotiate a deal for the prisoner exchange. Things get complicated when the Germans capture one man and the Russians capture another. Donovan wants to make a two for one deal, trading Abel to the Russians in turn for both of the captured Americans. We get a real sense of being there, in Germany, with Donovan right at the time when the Berlin Wall is being built. This movie definitely brought me back to other great films about the German historical time period when citizens were persecuted and spied on. Specifically it reminded me of the film The Lives of Others, an excellent movie about this kind of situaiton. Bridge of Spies might be a little too moralistic and preachy at times, but it is still a very well-made and enjoyable film