Modern warfare is all about ambiguity. Who’s the enemy? Who are the combatants? It’s one reason why the simple morality of a movie lends itself more to the clarity of WWII, the Cold War or similar, where it’s easy to figure out who to root for and who’s the bad guy. From our vantage point in the 21st Century, it’s hard to imagine the anti-communist fear that helped define the 1950’s and 1960’s, with Soviet Premier Khrushchev promising that the USSR would “bury the United States” as each side was engaged in a terrifying race to deploy more nuclear weapons than the other. Phrases like “pre-emptive strike” and “nuclear stockpile” became common utterances on the nightly news as children were taught pointless “duck and cover” drills in case of nuclear attack.
Bridge of Spies does a brilliant job of recreating the tension and fear of the era, focusing on the landmark exchange by the Americans of convicted Soviet agent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) for American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and US graduate student Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), as happened in the pre-dawn hours of February, 1962 in East Berlin, Germany, less than a year after the construction of The Berlin Wall divided the city into two very different worlds.
The exchange is broker and facilitated by American lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks), who is initially hired by the U.S. Government as defense attorney to the imprisoned Abel. He’s told by his boss Watters (Alan Alda) that “we need to show the Russkies that even spies get a fair trial in America”. Abel never quite admits that he’s been spying on US military facilities on behalf of the Soviet Union, but still manages to demonstrate his honor as a soldier just doing his job. Donovan becomes caught up in the case, even as the public outcry against Abel reaches a crescendo and angry zealots bring their upset even to the Donovan family home in a particularly frightening incident.
A few years after Abel is imprisoned, Air Force pilot Powers flies a mission over Russia on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency and is shot down over Sverdlovsk and captured by the feared KGB. Convicted of being a spy, he is sentenced to ten years of hard labor.
But the Soviets want their man Abel back and might just be willing to consider an exchange of Powers for Abel if the terms are right. The challenge is that no-one from the US government can be involved in the negotiation in case it fails. Enter Donovan, who has already demonstrated his unwavering loyalty to truth and justice in his continued defense of Abel, even having gone so far as to take the case to the Supreme Court to argue the constitutionality of the conviction.
There’s more to this complex story that unfolds elegantly on screen, including the roles of CIA Agents Blasco (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Gamber (Victor Verhaeghe), complimenting a full cast of characters conflicted in their desire for justice and patriotic love of country. At its core, however, Bridge of Spies is a film about an unsung American hero, James Donovan, and his behind-the-scenes efforts to help ease the tensions of the Cold War at a critical juncture in world history.
Written by Ethan and Joel Coen and directed by Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies is also a beautiful film, meticulously recreating the tension and global fear of the era and offering a story of all-too-human people in a mad world, arguing over coffee about the potential end of the world. Scenes resonate, including a duck and cover drill by school children who have already been terrified by films about the threat of nuclear attack, and another scene where a family of refugees tries desperately to clamber over The Berlin Wall before East German guards gun them down.
Bridge of Spies is one of the best movies of the year and will take its place as one of the dozen best movies made about the Cold War era, with its focus on a single incident, the complexity of the relationship between between Abel and Donovan and the negotiations between the US and USSR through intermediaries who are barely allowed to even acknowledge their roles in their respective governments. The performances are uniformly excellent, the world of 1962 is meticulously recreated down to the last detail, and the long running time — 142 minutes — goes by quickly as viewers are caught up in the story. This’ll win some Academy Awards, no question, so go see it before all the hype begins. You’ll thank me.