Bridge of Spies (2015)

Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen | Joel Coen
Stars: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda |
Certificate: 12A |
Runtime: 141 min

This film could so easily have been propaganda of heroic, democratic Americans fighting the evil, dictatorial Russians. It’s set in 1957, during the Cold War, and centres on attempts by an American lawyer recruited to defend an arrested Soviet spy in court, and subsequently to help the CIA arrange an exchange of the spy for the Soviet captured American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers. An exchange to take place on the Glienecke bridge spanning East and West Berlin (the “Bridge of Spies” of the title). Spielberg never falls into the trap of making propaganda, instead this film is nuanced, balanced and even positive.

Sure there is the underlying message that America in the 1960s was more humane and liberal than Communist countries of the same era. That’s just stating the truth though. Whilst America at that time had its own issues with support for dictatorships, civil rights, segregation and racism, there was no moral equivalency with the brutal Communist regimes.

Bridge of Spies does not hide the fact that Donovan (the lawyer, played by Tom Hanks) is really being asked to make a pretence of a fair trial not really aim for one.
Donovan is verbally/physically attacked by his fellow Americans for defending Rudolf Abel (the Russian spy, played by Mark Rylance). The federal judge assigned to the case, Mortimer Beyers, shows he has already reached his verdict before the trial even begins and bulldozes through objections from Donovan. Donovan’s boss is less than sympathetic. Even his wife is far from supportive. Maybe this isn’t surprising as Donovan’s family pay a heavy price for him to defend the rights of a suspected spy. Most Americans seem to think that Donovan is a traitor for defending Abel and want his client executed. Donovan has other ideas. He believes it to be his constitutional duty to defend a man who may be guilty of spying and attempting to undermine the American state and its constitution. Donovan works for due process and a fair trial. He opposes the death penalty for his client and manages to secure imprisonment instead. Donovan is played by Hanks as the American Conscience. It’s a solid performance and the interplay between Hanks and Rylance is superb. Abel refers to Donovan as “the standing man” who continually keeps getting up after being knocked down.

The film portrays Rudolf as a decent, humane person only doing to the US what the US were doing to Russia. The performance from Rylance is one of the things that makes this film so fascinating. He plays Rudolf as an enigma, mild mannered, polite, softly spoken with a musical quality to his voice, yet someone who believes in his cause and will not sell it out. Critics have rightly praised this performance. Robbie Collin writing in the The Telegraph highlights: “A scene in which Abel quietly outwits an entire FBI raiding party in just his vest and underpants contains acting so understated, it’s virtually subliminal”.
The underlying question Spielberg is putting is that if we compromise our basic values to beat an enemy, haven’t they already won? It’s a question that we need to keep asking today. Then our enemies were the Communists, today they are the Salafist extremists of IS. Bridge of Spies, though set in the past, feels very relevant today.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

 

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