Very quietly the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, co-wrote the screenplay for the latest Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List, Lincoln) film, Bridge of Spies. I say quietly because I (who usually keeps her ear to ground) knew nothing about it. When I saw their names in the credits at the beginning of the film I wondered to myself why they hadn’t directed the film themselves. After seeing it I understood why. This is in no way a Coen brothers’ film. It certainly isn’t of the style we’ve become used to from them. Rather this is an old fashioned feeling film that deals with Cold War relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Being mainly an insurance lawyer, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks – Big, You’ve Got Mail) is surprised when the two other partners at his firm suggest that he be the one that takes on the defense of a man accused of being a spy for the Soviets. Jim takes it on, but he does it in a way that neither his firm nor his family could have predicted or wanted.
This is 1952 and the United States is caught up in the Cold War. Each country is worried about the other’s nuclear capabilities. The gathering of information is vital in such an atmosphere of distrust. As such each side has sent out plenty of spies in the hopes of them getting their hands on information.
Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance – The Other Boleyn Girl, Angels & Insects) is arrested by the FBI and questioned by the CIA. Always calm, cool and collected, he gives up nothing. Jim is brought in as his lawyer with the understanding that he is there to give the illusion that the suspected Russian spy is being afforded a competent defence. Even the judge, Mortimer Byers (Dakin Matthews – The Fabulous Baker Boys, True Grit – 2010), has already decided the outcome before the trial begins. Jim is not like everyone else in that he defends Abel to the best of his abilities despite all that is against them.
The trial is really a formality. Abel is found guilty by a jury after 10 days of testimony. Jim, due to his defending Abel has become one of the most hated men in America, visits the judge at home to convince him that it’s in the best interests of the United States that Abel stay alive and is not sentenced to hang. He uses the angle that if an American is captured by the Soviets that the U.S. government would have someone to exchange. The argument is a convincing one as Judge Byers sentences Abel to 30 years in prison.
Jim continues, against everyone’s, including his own wife (Amy Ryan – Birdman, Gone Baby Gone), advice to fight for Abel’s rights. He even takes the case to the Supreme Court, but is defeated by a 5 to 4 vote.
Four young pilots in the Air Force are selected for a highly confidential mission. They join up with many others for training for an information gathering mission. Introduced to the U-2 spy plane that has the capability of flying 70,000 miles up rendering it undetectable and which has had high powered cameras attached to them to take photos over the Soviet Union. During the training the pilots are instructed not to be caught and if shot to destroy the plane so it and they will not fall into Soviet hands. On a mission one pilot, Francis Powers (Whiplash, Dolphin Tale), is captured. He is sentenced to 10 years in Soviet prison.
The CIA contacts Jim and asks him to broker a deal with the Soviets regarding a swap of Abel for Powers. He won’t get any official help if he agrees to do this and must travel to Berlin. Is Jim up to this? And is he willing to risk his own life?
Once again Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg team up to make a film. Spielberg has made several war films previous and is very comfortable with the genre’s big visuals. He also heaps in plenty of striking tracking shots and framed scenes. Over his career he has shown himself to be one of the best at drawing emotion from silent shots and cinematography. This can also be added to his growing list of period pieces that have strong messages and depict people of courage standing up for what they believe in. Hanks does what he does best in that he portrays an average guy who does remarkable things. Really is his wheelhouse. Hanks can be thought of as the Jimmy Stewart of his generation. A great addition to the solid cast is a supporting turn by Mark Rylance. Brit stage actor Mark Rylance is considered by many to be the best actor from the U.K. of his generation. He is calm and the most unspylike guy you could imagine as Abel.
Based on a true story, while this film is not a history lesson it will give you some idea of what happened between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 50s. While it is a spy film, it focuses much more on dialogue rather than action. Totally aimed at history buffs and intrigue rather than fans of thrills and action.
-A Case of the Cold War: Bridge of Spies
-Berlin 1961: Recreating the Divide
-U-2 Spy Plane
-Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act