Bridge of Spies: Best Film of the Year

Scene from Bridge of Spies

All images courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures/DreamWorks/Amblin Entertainment

Bridge of Spies: Best Film of the Year

| published October 14, 2015 |

By R. Alan ClantonThursday Review editor


Twentieth century history is back in vogue, and making lots of money at the box office. A spate of recent big-budget films has made American history cool again on the big screen, and—save for a couple of exceptions—without boring audiences.

Among the fact-based movies of notable quality: Black Mass (starring Johnny Depp), which tells the sometimes grisly, violent story of James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston mob kingpin who forged an alliance with the FBI in the 1970s; Pawn Sacrifice, which tells the remarkable story of the greatest chess match ever held, the Cold War era duel in 1972 between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spatsky; The Walk, which retells the risky but true story of high-wire walker Phillippe Petit, whose 1974 walk between the rooftops of the World Trade Center became the most daring acrobatic stunt ever attempted; and Everest, the shocking true story of the doomed 1996 mountain climbing expedition of Rob Hall which was caught in a sudden, epic super blizzard.

All of these films save for one (Pawn Sacrifice) have received praise from both critics and audiences. Pawn Sacrifice, though its subject is one of the greatest single-combat matchups ever conducted, has been generally panned by critics as missing the mark; reviews range from “dull” to “flat” to “uninspired.” Pawn Sacrifice was, nevertheless, reasonably true to its fact-based subject. Black Mass, if anything, could be said to have glossed over the most gruesome realities of Whitey Bulger’s rise and reign in the Boston underworld. Everest is a thrill ride, but according to some historians greatly exaggerates some of the incidents portrayed.

Which brings us to Steven Spielberg’s latest cinematic chapter from the history books, Bridge of Spies.

Written by Matt Charman, and the brothers Joel and Ethan Cohen, Bridge of Spies tells the remarkable story of a skilled and successful insurance attorney, James B. Donovan, who—because of his experience as an assistant to one of the attorneys at the Nuremberg Trials after World War II—is thrust into the job of representing Rudolf Abel (also known as Col. Vilyam Fisher of the KGB), a mild-mannered New York City man accused by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies of spying for the Soviet Union. The evidence against Abel (played by Mark Rylance) is solid; indeed most legal observers and reporters generally assume that any trial will be strictly for show. Even Donovan’s family members are skeptical that anything good will come from the experience. But Donovan agrees to represent Abel, on the level—as it were—and to the best of his ability, and in the face of a judge who insists that the trial move quickly and without fanfare or delay. In the meantime, Donovan gets pressure from the CIA to share some of the information that Abel is revealing, which, as it turns out, is not much.
Scene from Bridge of Spies

Still, the evidence against Abel is powerful, and he is convicted of multiple counts of espionage against the United States. Despite the very real possibility that Abel will be sentenced to die in the electric chair, as were his predecessors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Donovan persuades the judge to sentence Abel instead to prison. Donovan has a hunch that Abel might one day become a useful source of leverage in the increasingly dangerous, fear-driven confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. In 1958, Abel is sentenced to a minimum of 30 years in prison. But Donovan’s hunch later proves to be a prescient view of the unfolding drama in post-war Europe; the Soviet Union and its satellite nations seek to stanch the flow of citizens from the East into Western Europe, a human outflow which would reach the rate of hemorrhage by the early 1960s in Berlin where thousands crossed from the Soviet-controlled sector into the west.

On August 13, 1961, the German Democratic Republic (Soviet-aligned East Germany) officially closed the border between the eastern and western sectors of Berlin, and within hours construction of the Berlin Wall began. East German and Russian troops closed roads and bridges, began tearing up the streets which demarcated the boundary, and even sealed buildings which faced the East but had backdoors to the West. A wall made of concrete and barbed wire was hastily constructed using all available workers and military personnel. Over the course of weeks and months, panic swept through East Germany, with thousands more seeking to make their way across the rapidly closing border.

Thus Bridge of Spies tells several parallel stories. Among the events unfolding even as Donovan takes on the defense of Abel is the development of the U2 high-altitude reconnaissance plane, more commonly called the U2. This top secret plane, able to cruise at altitudes of more than 70,000 feet, also contained some of the most sophisticated cameras ever developed—imaging equipment able to capture high resolution photos of military bases, troop movements, industrial sites, and rocket launching facilities. Under the guise of scientific and weather research, the planes were used by the CIA primarily to spy on the Soviet Union and its military allies. Those specially-trained pilots had instructions to inject themselves with a cyanide needle if for any reason they were captured.
Scene from Bridge of Spies

One of those pilots was Gary Francis Powers (played by Austin Stowell), whose plane was hit by high-altitude anti-aircraft rocket-fire on May 1, 1960. Powers’ U2 broke-up at about 69,000 feet. Powers ejected, was trapped briefly by his parachute harness, then safely landed, but was unable to inject himself before his capture on the ground. A CIA cover story of a weather plane straying off course was quickly cooked-up, but was just as quickly repudiated in the press when Powers turned up alive and in Soviet custody.

The United States wants Powers back before he considers spilling the beans on the super-secretive U2 plane; the Soviet Union wants its KGB man and top spy Abel back in Moscow. Thus, the stage is set for a complex and tense set of negotiations to make the swap, a job which now falls to Donovan to arrange. Donovan understands he is the fall guy if the deal goes wrong, and no less than CIA Director Allen Dulles has told him as much. Neither the US nor the USSR wants to acknowledge any such exchange, at least not officially, and surely not in advance. Complicating the process: the U.S. does not even recognize the validity of the GDR (East Germany), where Donovan must conduct part of his negotiations.

At the height of the often tenuous, strained talks—fraught with fears and worries by both sides, and laced with scores of imponderables and what-ifs—Donovan decides to up the stakes, as it were, and improvises a wider plan: the additional exchange of Abel for not only Powers, but also an American Ivy League grad student named Frederic Pryor. Thus Donovan has overstepped his completely unofficial mandate to swap one-for-one, and his CIA handlers are alarmed by his audacious gambit.

There are no required spoiler alerts here. Bridge of Spies is a fact-based story, easily researched by looking at the parallel histories of the U2 incident, James B. Donovan, the Berlin Wall, and Rudolf Abel. Donovan succeeds, but not without the dozens of loose variables and moving parts which we would expect in this kind of drama. Donovan’s work to gain the release of both Powers and Pryor instantly rehabilitates his image; he had, after all, been the attorney who defended Abel at the height of distrust between the superpowers and during the coldest chapter of the Cold War.

Out of dozens, Bridge of Spies is one of the best films I have seen this year. Upon some reflection, I may remove that qualifier within a day or two to declare it this year’s best. Sometimes this type of film grows on you.

This is certainly Spielberg doing what he does best—working with vastly interesting and important historical material, and crafting an atmospheric piece of impeccable quality and design. Furthermore, the movie’s casting is stupendous, though some audiences may wonder aloud where all the big stars have gone. Aside from Hanks, there are few first tier performances. Alan Alda takes on the historically large role of Thomas Watters, Donovan’s senior partner in the New York law firm. Amy Ryan stars as Donovan’s wary but patient wife, Mary; Peter McRobbie plays CIA director Allen Dulles.
Scene from Bridge of Spies

Hanks—always likeable in his best roles—is perfectly cast as the tireless Donovan, determined as Abel’s counselor to give the Russian spy the best defense possible, and passionate and fearless in his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court when he seeks to reverse Abel’s conviction. Hanks also fills the role believably as the same Donovan who later must attempt to juggle the narrow imperatives of the CIA, the KGB, east and west, and mercurial personalities in a landmark deal to free two Americans.

Spielberg and his main writers—Charman and the brothers Cohen—have crafted this film to be largely shed of the ugliest of the propaganda we normally expect with this subject. It would have been easy for a clumsier director to skew the story Left or Right, or to proselytize about the competing sets of ethics and moral codes prevalent in the late 1950s and early 60s, or to even wax poetic about the Cold War. But its atmospherics and texture help to draw us in to this highly watchable story, even as the film exposes just how infectious fear had become at the height of the Cold War, and dangerous the world had become in the shadow of nuclear weapons.

In fact, a few reviewers have already offered the sometimes minor complaint that the film sanitizes much of the dark, gritty truths from this era. The complaint of glossing, however, seems rooted in the film’s occasional humorous moments. But like Spielberg’s other cinematic retellings of history (Lincoln; Amistad; Catch Me If You Can), the light moments help to offset the weightiness of the material. It’s hard to imagine Bridge of Spies without the impeccable timing found in the Cohen Brother’s writing or in Tom Hanks delivery.

On the whole, Bridge of Spies movie may be instant Oscar material—for writing, for acting, and perhaps for Spielberg as director. See this one at the theater—don’t wait for Netflix or Redbox or HBO or Blu-ray. Part of this movie’s power comes from its texture, its composition, and its depth-of-field, and its power to bring this chapter of history to the large canvas.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Black Mass; movie review by R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 8, 2015.

Revenge of the Nerds: Science Guys on the Big Screen; R. Alan Clanton ;Thursday Review; January 20, 2015.