Steven Spielberg’s latest film, the Cold War drama-thriller, Bridge of Spies, takes place in 1957 when paranoia and fear drove foreign policies of the world’s two main superpowers, the USA and the USSR. The film is based on the 1960 U-2 incident regarding the exchange of a Russian spy, caught in Brooklyn and an American U-2 pilot, whose aircraft was shot down over Russian airspace when he was there on a covert mission. The true story of the incident can be read here.
The movie focuses on Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks, assured and brilliant as ever), a Brooklyn insurance attorney and partner in a law firm who’s asked by the bar council to take up the case of a detained Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance in a spectacular performance), only just so (actually) that the Americans can show to the whole world that even a foreign spy is provided a fair trial in the United States of America. Donovan reluctantly agrees but then begins the defence of his client in letter and spirit, because for him the correct procedure, by the book, needs to be followed, not just to show the world something, but because that’s what’s fair. The movie aptly portrays the level of hysteria that was a hallmark of the era with the public and the government agencies of both countries being scared of the other side. The overwhelming evidence against Abel and the fact that he was a spy, a Russian at that, pits everyone against Donovan, including his wife and children who don’t understand the logic behind defending an enemy spy. Not even the judge wants him to push his case. Abel is a tough nut too who doesn’t despair or break down. When asked by Donovan why he isn’t worried about his fate, he simply states,”Would it help?”
Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in Bridge of Spies
After the jury unanimously finds Abel guilty of all the charges, Donovan convinces the judge, privately, to spare him the capital punishment in case a prisoner swap had to be done with the USSR sometime in the near future, given the hostilities prevalent at the time. The judge agrees and the resulting publicity worsens situation so much that Donovan’s house is fired at. And as he predicted, an offer for exchange is indeed, what comes up. A U-2 aircraft piloted by US Air Force pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down and from there begins the game between the two parties. After an innocent US student is detained by the East German (DDR) authorities, they too become entangled in the saga. The crisis escalates since now Donovan wants the student (the kid as he calls him) freed too in exchange for Abel.
Tom Hanks in a still from the movie.
The negotiation part of the exchange takes place in Germany, East Berlin actually, because in the Cold War, Berlin was the theatre, both for the Western powers and the Russians. A special word here for the movie’s production design and Janusz Kaminski’s measured cinematography. The movie creates a Berlin that’s unsettling and disturbing, the rubble and ruins heightening the vision of a Germany that was both literally and figuratively, in ruins. Full marks there.
At various points during the movie, i couldn’t help thinking how Pro-American the movie’s view is. True, it’s an American film and true, the Western powers won the Cold War but that doesn’t mean that they were all clean, absolved of all guilt or extralegal acts. The movie shows the contrast between the methods used by the two parties, from the interrogation techniques to the trial. As one might guess, the Americans’ methods are shown to be angelic as compared to those of the Russians which, quite frankly, couldn’t have been true. However, movies like this are about a lot more than the mere methods of interrogation. And that is what Mr. Spielberg shows us. Donovan is given the moniker of “Last man standing” by Abel for keeping his moral ground even when he could easily do otherwise and no one would bat an eyelid. At its core, this is a movie about honour and duties, about doing the right thing irrespective of the consequences, and also, in a minor way, about redemption. All Academy Awards stuff. Add the brilliance of Academy darlings Tom Hanks and Mr. Spielberg and you have a surefire contender in your hands. The problem here is the story. In spite of the sporadic dark humour that’s a characteristic of the Coen Brothers, who worked on the screenplay of the movie, the basic story, for me, was a tad underwhelming. Plus it is unable to build its narrative strongly to a crescendo, what with the pace being lethargic at times. The film has been marketed as a cold war drama thriller. Now as a drama and character portrayal it’s excellent, but as a thriller I think it fell some way short. I’m not saying every thriller needs to be slam bang and wallop type. Even slow-burn thrillers are great, and sometimes, infinitely more satisfying. 2011’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy comes to mind. The story here was a bit predictable, right from the beginning. The movie doesn’t focus to much on the effect that the Wall had on the lives of people in the DDR, perhaps rightfully, but it was missing that something that elevates good movies to great. All this is not to take anything away from the fabulous cast and crew but if I was to put my money on the likely Oscar winners, I wouldn’t choose this one, at least not yet.
Runtime : 141 minutes.
Bridge of Spies is now playing in cinemas.
Rating : 3.5/5