Bridge of Spies: Movie Review
Bridge of Spies is a Cold War spy movie based on the true story of an exchange of American and Soviet spies. It stars Tom Hanks as James Donovan and Mark Rylance as Rudolph Abel. It was directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers.
Bridge of Spies: Logline
At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet spy and an American spyplane pilot are captured. An American lawyer has to use all his negotiating skills to navigate between the bitter enemies and broker a spy-swap deal.
Bridge of Spies: Plot Summary
Warning: My plot summaries contain major spoilers. This film has only just come out and you should probably go and see it before reading the plot summary. However, the worst spoilers are blacked out like this secret . To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s 1957. In New York, the FBI arrest Rudolf Abel as a Soviet spy.
James Donovan, is asked to be Abel’s lawyer. He’s initially reluctant, but is persuaded that Abel deserves a fair trial and a proper defence. The USA is still deep in McCarthy-style paranoia about the Soviet Union and communism, and this leads first to suspicion of Donovan’s sympathies, and then to harassment and threats to his family.
Abel is found guilty of all charges, and is likely to face the death sentence, but Donovan presciently argues Abel may be more useful to the USA alive, and the judge sentences Abel to thirty years in prison. Donovan appeals the case to the Supreme Court but loses, and Abel goes to prison.
Meanwhile, the CIA recruit Gary Powers as a spyplane pilot. On a mission over the Soviet Union, he’s shot down, captured and convicted as a spy. In a separate incident, the East Germans arrest an American student, Frederic Pryor, as he tries to sneak his German girlfriend across the border to West Berlin.
The Soviets send a letter to Abel via Donovan purporting to be from his family. Abel tells Donovan that the letter is a coded proposal to exchange him for Powers. Donovan tells the CIA about the proposal and they ask him to negotiate the transfer, as they don’t want to make the negotiations official.
In Berlin, Donovan meets with the KGB representative and they discuss the terms of the exchange. Donovan though has learnt of Pryor’s captivity and asks the Soviets to release him too. The KGB representative says Donovan will have to arrange this separately with the East Germans.
Donovan negotiates with the East Germans, who are initially receptive. But when they learn Donovan is trying to get two Americans for Abel, they pull out of the deal and arrest Donovan for passport irregularities. Released the next day, Donovan tells the CIA the situation. They don’t care about Pryor, and order Donovan to settle for Powers…
Donovan though is determined to save both Americans and so tries a last-ditch ploy, threatening the East Germans that if they don’t release Pryor then the whole deal will collapse and the Soviets will blame them for the failure. The East Germans give in, although they insist on releasing Powers and Pryor separately – Powers at the Glienicke Bridge and Pryor at Checkpoint Charlie.
The next morning on the Glienicke Bridge, Powers and Abel are ready to swap, but there’s no sign of Pryor at Checkpoint Charlie. The CIA want to go ahead anyway, but Donovan realises it’s a final test and they need to hold their nerve. He’s right, and eventually Pryor appears and the exchange takes place.
Bridge of Spies: Analysis
Bridge of Spies is not a typical spy movie, it’s a cerebral drama, more in the tradition of legal thrillers, but despite knowing the ending in advance, as I’ve read non-fiction accounts, I found myself gripped by the storyline.
The film never feels slow, despite containing only a single, short action scene as Powers is shot down. In some ways it reminded me of Argo with its dramatisation of true events in spy history and attempt to squeeze maximum tension from relatively straightforward events – negotiations not inherently being the most exciting things in the world. Argo though went further, containing many fictional sequences, and Bridge of Spies does seem to have stuck closer to reality.
To quibble a little, the film’s ending is a bit overlong and heavy-handed. The movie could have ended on the bridge just as well, and with a little more subtle ambiguity about the fate of Abel.
Two characters stand out in Bridge of Spies – Tom Hanks as Donovan and Mark Rylance as Abel.
Hanks plays his usual character: the earnest, decent, man who stubbornly sticks to his straight-as-a-die principles and comes through against more manipulative forces. Marc Rylance steals most of the scenes he’s in as the stoical Abel, who slowly develops respect and trust in Donovan.
To quibble again, the movie never really sets up why Donovan continues to be involved when his voluntary and largely thankless mission takes a turn for the dangerous. And I must admit I was expecting more about Powers, who really just has a bit part in the movie.
The theme of Bridge of Spies is “everyone matters”. Donovan gets involved because even Soviet spies deserve a fair trial. The main dilemma for him in the spy swap is his determination to rescue not just the high profile, spy plane pilot, but the unimportant student too. Donovan himself confronts and refuses to buckle to the reds-under-the-beds pressure to throw the rulebook out from the CIA, the legal system and the public before moving on to show he can stand up to Soviet and East German intimidation too.
This means Bridge of Spies is not a cynical movie. It does touch on the kind of shabby compromise and Realpolitik that characterised the real Cold War, but all the moral ambiguity is placed in the hands of the unsympathetic supporting characters like the CIA and KGB agents. The main characters are all decent and courageous, even Abel, who’s portrayed very sympathetically.
It was good to see that Bridge of Spies largely plays against us-versus-them propaganda. But, talking of propaganda, I did find it a bit amusing how the scenes in the USA all seemed to be set in the summer, with a warm colour palette, while simultaneously in Berlin it was perpetual winter.
Reality: The True Story of the Spy Swap
Bridge of Spies is broadly true, not altering the real events particularly, though dramatising a few moments – Donovan didn’t have his coat stolen or witness Berliners being killed and his house was not shot at, for example. The movie does shorten the real timescales – Abel was in prison for four years before the swap and Powers for two. The movie also compresses the negotiations, which took months, not days. Donovan was also much more connected to the intelligence services than the movie presents, having served in the OSS during World War Two. But overall, the movie is as true to life as we could hope for.
Bridge of Spies: My Verdict
A great character-based spy drama. Well worth watching.
Want to Watch It?
Here’s the trailer:
Bridge of Spies is currently in cinemas.
If you’d like to discuss anything in my Bridge of Spies review, please email me. Otherwise, please feel free to share it using the buttons below.