Out of the Past, Thundering Hoof Beats: Review of Bridge of Spies

by Alvin G. Burstein

Holy Moley, a thriller without special effects, splattered gore or colliding cars!

Much makes this Spielberg/Hanks movie both remarkable and memorable. It deftly recreates the 1950’s and 60’s, when Kruschev and Eisenhower were fumbling on the edge of open conflict and the Berlin wall was going up.

Early in the film we see a painter doing a self-portrait. We see the painter, the mirror image he is using as a model, and the image he is creating on canvas—a distinctively Spielbergian gesture calling our attention to the complexity of reality.

The painter turns out to be Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian spy. He is arrested and James Donovan (Tom Hanks), an insurance lawyer, is appointed to defend him. Donovan is reluctant on two grounds: lack of experience in criminal work and concern over the impact on his family of his involvement in a politically unpopular effort—defending an enemy. He reluctantly agrees to accept the responsibility because of his ethical commitment to the principle that everyone is entitled to a defense. Not the sham of a defense, but the best possible defense.

When his client is convicted, Donovan persuades the judge not to impose the death penalty. Despite pressure from colleagues and from the judge to be content with ritual efforts, he continues to fight hard for his client, appealing the conviction to the Supreme Court, arguing that Able is a loyal fighter for his own country, not a traitor to ours, and protesting the legality of evidence against him, seized without a warrant. The appeal is lost.

A few years later, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down over Russia, and its pilot, Gary Powers (Austin Stowel) captured by the Russians. Donovan is recruited to go to East Berlin and negotiate for the exchange of Abel for Powers. To avoid admitting American involvement in spying on Russia, he must represent himself as a private citizen, not a U. S. official.

Donovan learns that, in addition to Powers being held by the Russians, the East Germans have jailed an American student, Frederick Pryor (Will Rogers), as a spy. During the negotiations, Donovan, against pressure from the CIA that he not do so, ups the ante, saying that the exchange must be two for one: Powers and Pryor for Abel. The situation is complicated by East German insistence on demonstrating autonomy from both the United States and the Russia.

The heart pounding climax of the film is the scene of Donovan and Abel waiting on one side of the Glienicke Bridge near Potsdam with Powers and his captors on the other. The Russians press for Abel to cross over immediately. Donovan insists on waiting until they hear that the East German government has brought Pryor to checkpoint Charlie and his freedom.

Building from the moment of Donovan’s arrival in East Germany, the uncertainties of a deal constantly on the verge of collapse because of the competing motivations of the parties involved generate tension which, in the final scene, explodes from the cerebral to the visceral.

What especially recommends this film to me is its presentation of Donovan as a genuine hero, a person who eschews personal safety, convenience and popular pressure to adhere to principle.

If you watched the Lone Ranger as a kid, you will love this film. Everyone deserves a defense, and we need heroes
to admire.

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