Bridge of Spies
Prisoner exchanges have become a staple of Cold War spycraft stories. The Americans have captured a Russian spy, and the Russians have one of ours. Each side wants to get their man back, if only because he’s got a head full of classified information, and the longer he stays in enemy custody the more likely he’ll crack and spill what he knows. By the same token, each side wants to hold onto their prisoner as long as possible, in hopes they might get him to talk. And all of this is complicated by diplomatic subterfuge; they must negotiate the release without giving away the strength of their own position, in a poker game being played for the highest of stakes.
One of the most famous exchanges of the Cold War was connected to the loss of a U-2 spy plane — yes, kids, Bono’s band started out as a vehicle for social commentary, right down to the reference in their name — and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Bridge of Spies tells this story with deceptive simplicity. The script, by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers, ties the U-2’s loss together with other related incidents, and focuses on James Donovan (Tom Hanks), the Brooklyn Lawyer caught in the middle of the negotiations. The straightforward narrative leads us into a meditation on a topic that resonates deeply today: what it means to do the right thing in the midst of concerns about national security.
Donovan’s involvement began years before Powers’ plane went down inside Soviet territory. In 1956, police arrested Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Brooklyn and charged him as a spy. Most lawyers refused to touch the case, but Donovan — who had previously assisted the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials — felt it was his duty to give Abel his best work as defense counsel.
Naturally, most Americans tended to disagree. Abel was a spy working for the hated Russians, so why shouldn’t he fry like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had just a few years earlier? But we have constitutional rights to prevent exactly this sort of rush to judgement, and even when the truth is “obvious” — especially then — we must take care to follow our core principles rather than follow our baser instincts. Donovan understood this, and went beyond his mandate to defend Abel at trial; after arguing to spare Abel’s life he continued to appeal Abel’s case to the Supreme Court, despite the disapproval of all the “Right-Thinking Americans” around him. This would make for a great story on its own, and the script provides space for Hanks to deliver a rousing, patriotic monologue on the importance of our Constitutional principles — that they, more than anything else, are what make us Americans — that could serve as its climax.
But at the same time, Powers (Austin Stowell) is being trained as a U-2 pilot. In 1960 he gets shot down in Russian airspace. Spielberg delivers a rousing action beat in the crash, and uses it to pivot the story. Donovan receives a message for Abel, seemingly from his wife, but really a back-channel invitation to open negotiations in Berlin for Powers’ release in exchange for Abel.
And of course this is Berlin in the 1960s, so that’s a whole other mess. The Berlin Wall is going up, and Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) was an American graduate student caught on the wrong side. As Donovan arrives and learns to navigate the passage from West to East and back, the Soviets signal that they would rather let the East Germans give up Pryor than let Powers go. The CIA, naturally wants Powers and is willing to lose Pryor to avoid losing the technical details of the U-2 program. And Donovan, ever the idealist, wants both.
Hanks is the obvious choice for Donovan. His entire career has built him up to represent the best in us. He radiates wholesomeness and fair play. Spielberg, too, is one of the few directors who can present this story with neither a tinge of irony, nor strident jingoism. This isn’t about how much greater America is than the Evil Communists, and, though it shows just how flighty and easily-swayed American public opinion can be, it’s not an indictment of our own system as being no different. One slightly anachronistic scene reminds us how stark the difference is, but it’s just as clear that we could easily lose what little moral high-ground we have if we are willing to sacrifice our ideals on the altar of national security.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.