Bridge of Spies

Posted on October 15, 2015 at 5:58 pm

Following World War II, Lord de l’Isle and Dudley was harshly criticized when he organized a legal defense fund for a Nazi general. He responded, “Had I met General Manstein during the war I would have shot him on sight. I am not concerned with whether von Manstein is guilty or not…I want Britain’s reputation upheld.”

Copyright Touchstone 2015
Copyright Touchstone 2015

Like the nobleman, American insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) understood that it means nothing to win a war against tyranny if we then become tyrants ourselves. Donovan, an assistant to future Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson at the Nuremberg Nazi war criminals trials who had been litigating insurance claims, was asked to defend an artist accused of spying for the Soviet Union. No one would have complained if he provided a less than vigorous defense. His wife (Amy Ryan) worries about the impact that his defense of an enemy spy will have on their family.

But Donovan had two fundamental principles. First, he recognized that the spy was doing for his country what others were doing for the US and he deserved to be treated as we would want our spies to be treated when they got captured. Second, he understood that if even one small rule was bent or one small step was skipped, it could do more damage to the essential principles of justice that define us than the theft of nuclear secrets.

Those secrets were hidden in a hollowed-out nickel. And the man who had them was a British artist named Rudolf Abel, superbly played by Broadway star Mark Rylance with wry resolve. There is a running joke in the film as he is repeatedly told he does not seem nervous or scared and he replies, “Would it help?” Donovan does his best to defend Abel, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court to argue that the evidence against Abel was taken in violation of the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. He is unsuccessful in the appeal but does manage to persuade the judge (in a dramatic but highly unlikely and completely illegal ex parte visit to the judge’s home) not to impose the death penalty.

That comes in handy a few years later when American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over the Soviet Union in what the United States calls a mistaken detour by a “weather plane.” But he was flying a spy plane outfitted with special cameras for the CIA. The US wants him back. So they call on Donovan.

Meanwhile, as the Berlin Wall is being constructed, an American PhD candidate named Pryor (Will Rogers) found himself on the wrong side and was captured and accused of spying by the East Germans. Donovan’s government contacts tell him not to worry about Pryor, but Donovan is determined to get both young men home.

Spielberg and Hanks are an unbeatable combination, and their work here, with an unironic and sincerely gripping screenplay by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, is as good as it gets. Donovan’s time in Berlin, crossing back and forth over the dividing line as the wall is being built — and as people trying to escape are being shot — is so evocatively cold, physically and emotionally, you will want to button your coat and you will feel for Donovan, who loses his to thugs on the East German side. The nuclear age minuet of politics, statecraft, diplomacy, and ego is tense and compelling. As Donovan warns, any mistake they make could be the last one. Spielberg’s signature touches include scenes of American schoolchildren watching real-life “safety” movies telling them to duck and cover and a quick glimpse of a wrenching parallel as Donovan sees children at recess, climbing in a way that echoes the desperate escape attempts he had just seen. It is too bad to see Ryan underused in a “honey, I’m worried — maybe you better not go” role, with a superfluous coda scene at the end. But the movie is still one of the best of the year, with a stunning sequence when Powers is shot down and sheer masterful storytelling.

Parents should know that this is a cold war story of spies with threat of atomic bombs, shooting down a spy plane, and extensive tension and peril including guns and abuse of prisoners, drinking, smoking, and brief strong language.

Family discussion: What do we learn about Donovan from his negotiation over the insurance payout? Why did he insist on including Prior?

If you like this, try: “13 Days” and Donovan’s book about the negotiation, Strangers on a Bridge: The Case of Colonel Abel and Francis Gary Powers

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Based on a true story Drama Spies
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