Bridge of Spies

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I showed up to the screening of this a few minutes late. That’s a shame, because the opening scene was great. We watch as Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy, is painting in his apartment and the FBI raids it. It was shot incredibly, and I was a bit surprised that they weren’t hiding the fact that he was an actual spy. I was under the impression this movie was going to be about a rush to judgement or “innocent until proven guilty.”

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks have teamed up before, and this will remind you a bit of Saving Private Ryan in ways.

One of my complaints with real life stories turned into movies is the fact that they add fictionalized dramatic moments to make it more entertaining. Spielberg opts not to do that. The problem is, the most dramatic things we have is lawyer James Donovan (Hanks) looking over his shoulder in the rain, having his jacket stolen by teenagers, and a really wicked cough. Audiences might be bored by the lack of action in the proceedings.

I can’t give Spielberg too much credit for not fictionalizing for excitement, because he does do something annoying. He changes, or leaves out, real life things to make the narrative he wants. You see, this film gives us an insurance lawyer put in this crazy situation. His boss (Alan Alda) throws this case on his lap and tells him he’s got to defend Abel. Donovan knows this will make him a pariah in town, but he does it. Here’s what Spielberg conveniently leaves out. Donovan isn’t just some average Joe that ends up playing this Cold War chess game between various countries. During World War II, he was a commander in Naval Intelligence and general counsel to the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). One of the things Donovan did was work with spies! Of course, this doesn’t make it as powerful to see some family man that is willing to leave said family behind, fly to another country to negotiate, and to nobly give all of us a lesson on what makes America and the “rule book” so great.

It’s a shame, because a scene in which he lectures a CIA agent in a bar is interesting, if a bit cliché (he talks about the agents’ Germany heritage and his own Irish background).

There are a few problems I had with the Donovan character. Since he is forced to take this case, and does so against his will, I would’ve liked the court case played out a bit longer. They just zip right through it (although the movie is over two hours, and they needed to save time somewhere). Also, his decision to appeal seems odd to me. It’s one thing if the opposing side was fudging evidence or lying in court, but everything seemed to be on the up and up. So once Donovan appeals, are we really supposed to feel bad for him when everyone on the subway gives him dirty looks? I remember Johnnie Cochran and Alan Dershowitz weren’t too popular after getting O.J. Simpson off with murder.

And if we’re supposed to look past that and think Donovan is such an incredible guy for wanting to do the right thing and give Abel the best defense possible, well…how can we explain an early scene in which Donovan is trying to screw over some motorcyclists that were hit by a car driven by his client? I realize Spielberg was trying to show a few things with that scene – Donovan is a tough negotiator, and being a lawyer for an insurance agency might mean you do some shady things, but as long as they’re in the “rule book” it’s fair game.

It is refreshing to see the reason why Donovan wants to keep Abel from the death penalty, and because it’s a “true story” I’m assuming those events actually happened the way they show them.

What happens is that American pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) has his U2 plane shot down over Russia. Yep – he was a spy for our side. And instead of committing suicide if captured (which we see the pilots being told), he gets captured alive. Not good, considering his plane had cameras and there’s no doubt he was spying.

You might think things are going to speed up a bit when Donovan goes to Berlin to negotiate the deal between the two spies, but they really don’t. The movie becomes a series of business meetings. Lots of stern talk, with drinks in hand, and Hanks going a bit overboard fighting his cold. I think he was more in danger of his sneezes than enemy soldiers. The movie should’ve been called “The Cold War” because the cold he had gave him more problems than the folks he was negotiating with.

It’s hard to understand the motivation behind Donovan going to Berlin, unless we were privy to that information the movie left out – that he’s done these types of things before. Otherwise, we think he’s just a fool. Why risk your life on a case that you didn’t want to begin with? And once things don’t go the way the government told you when you’re there…why not just bail out?

I remember watching movie critics Siskel & Ebert review A Few Good Men. One of them gave the movie a “thumbs down” simply because of this small complaint: Tom Cruise’s character told us what he was going to do at the end, and then he does it. There’s not much drama there.

I disagreed, because even though he said he’d try to get Jack Nicholson’s character on the stand, we didn’t know if it would work.

This movie has a similar problem. Hanks is telling everyone exactly what he’s going to do, and he does it. Not much drama in that, but I’m guessing Siskel & Ebert would’ve eaten this movie up. It’s the type of film all critics are praising, because…well, it’s Tom Hanks. It’s getting high ratings across the country and it will get a few Oscar nominations as well.

The film does have a few humorous moments, probably provided by the Coen brothers, who co-wrote the script.

It’s just a shame the movie wasn’t more intriguing. A few years ago, The Debt had me on the edge of my seat. And sure, that’s a different story, dealing with soldiers kidnapping a Nazi doctor and trying to bring him to justice.

This film had a problem many movies have – they take a real story that’s interesting, and make a boring movie out of it. Momuments Men did the same thing. Both would’ve been interesting articles to read, but didn’t work as films.

Donovan’s home life is like a Norman Rockwell painting. We get the dutiful wife (played by the talented Amy Ryan, who’s also in Goosebumps this weekend). There are children dealing with things kids deal with. A teen girl who is stood up on a date, and a boy that is afraid of a nuclear war. In a scene where Donovan comforts his son, and assures him that the spy he was defending wasn’t smuggling atomic bombs, we’re supposed to love what a thoughtful father he is. I’m wondering if anybody thought what I thought – how do you know?! You know you’re client is a British born Russian spy. There’s no doubt about that. You never did questioned him about what he was up to, you just made sure he got a fair trail. He could’ve been involved in a plot to blow up buildings with an a-bomb, we don’t know.

Now, that all those complaints being said…there’s great use of light, good production values, and the cast is solid. It’s certainly interesting to see Berlin being divided, and a few of the negotiations are powerful. The movie just needed a bit more.

It gets 2 stars out of 5.

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