In the heart of the Cold War, one man must sacrifice not just his safety, but also his honor, to uphold American values and negotiate a peaceful settlement among bitter enemies. He attempts to trade one Russian spy for two Americans, and proves a hero in some of the most unlikely ways. A cinematic masterpiece based on a true story, “Bridge of Spies” captures the essence of the Cold War and presents an inspiring view of American patriotism, without becoming heavy-handed or overstated.
The film opens with the enigmatic Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) painting the Brooklyn Bridge. While doing so, he receives a nickel with a secret Soviet message. When CIA agents break into his apartment and search the premises—without a warrant—they congratulate themselves on catching a Soviet spy.
For a spy thriller, “Bridge of Spies” is slowly and deliberately paced, each detail carefully presented and contributing to an artful depiction of the 1950s. The pacing and cinematography capture the weighty mood of the Cold War and the intensity of this moment in it without becoming overbearing. The film is dark, but hopeful; it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats, but leaves them well satisfied, and even inspired.
Insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) seems an unlikely hero. The audience first meets Donovan in a negotiation with another lawyer, representing an insurance company in a morally questionable way. Every little detail, even the case these lawyers debate right at the beginning, ties in with the rest of the story in a magnificent way, showing Steven Spielberg at his best.
Whatever his faults, Donovan proves persistent, loyal, and marvelous at his job. This crafty insurance lawyer is also a red-blooded American—a patriot to the core. The U.S. government asks him to defend Abel, in order to appear to give the Soviet spy a fair trial, and Donovan agrees, even though it will mean being seen as defending the worst kind of enemy. Others warn that taking this case may hurt both the lawyer and his firm, but Donovan persists, convinced that America stands for equal treatment before the law.
The judge does not share this opinion, however. Despite Donovan’s legal objections, Abel is summarily judged guilty. “We were supposed to give him representation, and we did that,” the judge argues. “Why are you citing the Constitution?” Undeterred, Donovan takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that America’s civil liberties are one of the important distinctions that makes the United States better than the Soviet Union.
“Surely a battle is being fought between two views of the world,” Donovan declares in a passionate speech before the Supreme Court. In a moving moment, the lawyer asks, “Shouldn’t we, by giving him the full benefits of our system of law and government, show him who we are? Is not this how we win this war?”
This treatment differs markedly from how the Soviet Union abuses American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) when they catch him taking pictures over Russian airspace. The movie continually contrasts the oppression of the Communist Russian government with American freedom, even highlighting the differing value of human life in the eyes of the respective governments. One particularly beautiful moment toward the end showcases the difference between New York City and East Berlin.
When the Soviets capture an American pilot, and the East Germans arrest an American student, Abel’s previous capture presents an opportunity for prisoner exchange. Donovan must fly to Berlin to negotiate a swap—but he does not go as a representative of the United States government, and receives no protective detail. In a dangerous divided city, Donovan must brave the cold of winter to negotiate with both Russian and East German representatives—who want very different things.
“Bridge of Spies” tells a long and complicated story with stunning cinematography and impressive, understated acting. From phone booths to fedoras, to the devastation of a half-rebuilt East Berlin, each detail of 1950s America and Germany is perfect and vibrant. Tom Hanks, an actor with impressive emotional range from “Forrest Gump” to “The Green Mile,” plays an understated lead. Rather than using Hanks to his full theatrical effect, Spielberg and Co. keep the character restrained, with an even temperament throughout. Hanks does a superb job, even though this character differs from his usual type.
Additionally, he interactions between Abel and Donovan provide excellent deadpan humor. When the American lawyer remarks on the Soviet spy’s remarkable lack of visible fear, the spy responds, matter-of-factly, “Would it help?” When it looks as though Abel might receive the death sentence, the lawyer asks what he thinks about it. “I’m not afraid to die, Mr. Donovan. Although it wouldn’t be my first choice.”
“Bridge of Spies” does more than master the complicated politics of the Cold War, the conflicted patriotism of a man defending a Soviet spy, and the impressive machinations of a “deal of the century.” Buried amidst all of these grandiose themes, full characters emerge: the stalwart Donovan, the stoic Abel, the impatient American diplomats constantly pressuring Donovan, and even the family dynamic in the lawyer’s home.
This movie well deserves its 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the PG-13 rating is just right. Remarkably, in this day and age, and despite the movie’s likely Oscar ambitions, “Bridge of Spies” refrains from adding any unwholesome content whatever. There is no nudity, sexual content, or blood and gore, and little foul language. Even the few violent scenes, necessary to the story, are filmed artfully and cleanly. The film’s understatement leads it to avoid any of our culture’s unhealthy reveling in pain and brokenness. (Although the film’s content is safe for young audiences, its length, depth, and slow pacing might prove too taxing for your kids’ attention spans.)
Ultimately, this film delivers, especially for a thoughtful audience. “Bridge of Spies” is a patriotic masterpiece, a period piece whose understated elements make it all the more compelling. You will leave satisfied, and perhaps even a bit more appreciative of those apparently heartless insurance lawyers.
Image copyright Touchstone Pictures. “Bridge of Spies” is rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language.
Tyler O’Neil is a Christian commentator and fundraiser living in the Washington, D.C., area. He has written for numerous publications, including The Christian Post, National Review Online, Values & Capitalism, and the Human Life Review.