The Great Spielberg Game: BRIDGE OF SPIES (film review)

Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks as the cold warrior.

Last week I caught up with the latest Steven Spielberg retro movie: Bridge of Spies, written by the Coen Brothers and starring Tom Hanks. Once again I managed to see it at our local art house, The Colonial Theater. It was a wet Thursday night of a one-week only run after the management of the Colonial grabbed the film as it concluded its showings in the local area. Bridge of Spies hasn’t done very well revenue wise, which is disappointing. 2015 was supposed to be The Year of the Spy with big Kingsmen release, but several of the movies which pushed the agenda haven’t performed too well at the box office, which leads me to believe there won’t be a follow-up year until the next century. Damn, I was hoping for  a Kommissar X rerun.

The average age of the audience was sixty. I noted on a quick scan of the heads in the seats, so don’t quote it as being part of some marketing survey. I say this because a big part of the cinema dollar anymore consists of high schoolers and millennials looking of a night out from their parents’ house. If Bridge of Spies didn’t grab their money, it wasn’t going to bring home the bank. The audience was respectful and Mrs. Z7 noticed a complete silence went over the crowd during a scene opener where a classroom of kids were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. My only complaint was the snack bar closing early, but you have to expect these things when the theater is run by volunteers and a  few paid employees. We sat on the main floor, I don’t find watching films from up in the balcony much of an experience.

The film took plenty of criticism for its historical inaccuracies. To which I say: “A Hollywood movie full of history flubs? Shock!”. The everyman hero of the film, Jim Donovan,portrayed in the movie by Tom Hanks, is a brilliant lawyer who is on the rise in his firm, run by an elderly lawyer (Alan Alda). In truth, he was  a full partner in the firm from an old money family. The hollow nickel which tips the FBI to a spy network was found years earlier than the one shown in the film. At the crucial transfer at the bridge, Donovan was carrying a weapon inside his umbrella just in case everything went wrong. And the final credits claim Rudolf Abel was never acknowledged as a spy, although the former Soviet Union honored him with a commemorative stamp in 1990. And a multiplex German cinema in the early 1960’s? They had those back then?

However, it’s still a good movie. Donovan is the insurance lawyer tapped by the New York Bar to represent a captured spy and works to the best of his ability. Everyone wants a kangaroo trial, but Donovan is willing to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. I haven’t done a lot of reading on this incident, but I get the feeling not everyone in the government was ready to lynch the spy. Abel was too valuable an asset even though he refused to talk. As a captured spy in the cold war, someone at the top knew he was useful as a bargaining chip.

The movie jumps forward a few years to the U2 program where a sailplane with twin jet engines is used to take high altitude reconnaissance photographs over Russian territory. Francis Gary Powers and other goofy cowboy types are recruited by tight-lipped no-nonsense CIA men to fly over Ivan’s homeland. They must take pictures of the other side’s industrial capabilities and missile sites. It works fine because they don’t have jets which can fly high enough to shoot down the interlopers. But the reds find a way to improve the air-to-air rockets and hit the plane poor Gary is flying over USSR territory. Now the Russians have proof, a captured pilot, and the American president appears an idiot since there is no way to deny it all.

The CIA taps Donovan to unofficially become the negotiator with the Russians to trade the U2 pilot for Abel. However, it becomes complicated. The negotiation has to be accomplished on East German territory. The U.S. doesn’t recognize an independent East Germany. the East Germans arrest an Amercian student after he ends up on the wrong side of the new Berlin wall. Now the East Germans want to trade the kid for Abel although the Russians want to exchange him for Powers. Will Donovan be able to work a deal which keeps everyone happy? Just how good a lawyer is he?

Bridge of Spies is a very slow-moving movie. It has Spielberg’s attention to period detail and the Cohen’s sense of tight plotting. Other than Alan Alda, there are other good parts with seasoned actors. Mark Rylance is perfect as Rudolf Abel. He’s such an unimposing figure, you can believe he was selected by the KGB because no one would ever notice him. Every time he’s asked about fear or concern his stock answer is: “Would it help?”.

So I recommend this movie. People who want to see a Bond clone shoot it out on a ship with minions in black will be disappointed. It has more in common with the intellectual spy movies such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

About Timothy L Mayer

Timothy Mayer has written 313 post in this blog.

I'm a full-time ghost writer, business owner, expert on spy fiction, martial artist, tax payer and self-appointed expert on obscure movies. Available for lectures. Donations appreciated

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