This is the beginning of my slow process to go through the Oscar movies and cross as many off my list as possible. Here we have Bridge of Spies. It’s another Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks collaboration, it’s certainly interesting and exceptionally well crafted.
The movie is based on a true situation, which was the negotiation by lawyer James Donovan to release US fighter pilot Francis Powers in trade for a suspected Russian spy. It’s tailor made for both Hanks and Spielberg to show some of the things they are best at. Keep your eyes peeled for some of Spielberg's trademark slow camera push-ins on characters while they say something key.
In 1957 Brooklyn, Rudolf Abel was being watched as a possible Russian spy by the FBI. He’s arrested, and in order to ensure that it looks like the US is giving all prisoners fair trials, insurance lawyer (with previous government experience) James Donovan is tasked with defending Abel – even though he is fully expected to fail. It kept reminding me of a really obscure reference; in the novelization of Star Trek 6 - it mentions how Lawyer Worf (the ancestor of the lieutenant Worf that we all know and love) was tasked with the despicable job of defending Kirk and McCoy, and did it honorably, even though every other Klingon there knew they were guilty and wanted them gone. Basically that's what happens here with Donovan. No one wants him to succeed, it's basically a show trial to prove we're diplomatic. Donovan does the best he can with the trial, coming to respect Abel. However, due to the paranoia and fear in the area, he and his family are targeted with hate mail and threats.
Abel is found guilty – but Donovan convinces the judge to give him life imprisonment instead of the death sentence, much to the dismay of the public. Donovan argues that they might need him down the line to trade for an American prisoner. Meanwhile, student Frederic Pryor in East Germany gets arrested and stuck behind the newly rising Berlin Wall, and US Pilot Francis Gary Powers gets shot down over Russia while flying a brand-new spy plane. Luckily – The US has Abel in holding – and tasks Donovan with going over to negotiate the release of Powers, since it was his idea, after all. While there, he hears about Pryor, so he shifts the negotiations to include both Powers and Pryor for Abel, much to the dismay of the FBI – but eventually, he pulls it off.
The movie is definitely an awards-type movie, it’s elegantly and simply directed by Spielberg. I did find the shifting between Donovan's storyline and Pryor's storyline and Powers's storyline to be a little jarring, but in the end it makes sense as they are all interconnected - but they seem really disjointed early on. Hanks was exceptional - but didn't really do anything you haven't seen him do before. His quiet determination to do the best job possible, even in a terrible situation, is really fantastic. It’s slow, and drags a bit here and there, and actually feels a bit like a play.
- As I said, Tom Hanks is perfect in this. He’s such a good guy, it’s easy to believe him in this role, and feel empathy towards Donovan in his growing relationship with Abel.
- I will say that Mark Rylance stole the movie for me. His performance as Abel is so excellent. He clearly is a spy – but is also a really nice older gentleman, who really seems more interested in painting and sketching than sending information back to Moscow. I loved his decision to wait on the bridge to make sure that Donovan got both Pryor and Powers, and his final gesture of sending a painting to Donovan was beautiful.
- Amy Ryan plays Mary Donovan, and really gets to go from quietly surprised to quietly angry to quietly worried to quietly proud as Donovan takes on this mission. Hey – it’s the 50s, what more are you expecting from a good housewife?
- Alan Alda plays Tomas Watters Jr., Donovan’s boss, who gives him the job of defending Abel – who then has the nerve to get upset with Donovan when he does his job and tries to prevent Abel from getting the death penalty.
- Austin Stowell plays Francis Gary Powers, and has almost nothing to do, just look stoic and patriotic while flying then crashing this new spyplane.
- Will Rogers plays student-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time Frederic Pryor. I was mystified by how quickly that wall went up and how fast he was trapped on the wrong side. Apparently that bit wasn’t entirely historically accurate, but it did provide some tense-ness to the movie.
The movie is elegant and interesting, and even though I fell asleep watching it (not really the movie’s fault, I was flying back from Paris and already exhausted), I enjoyed it. Rylance is nominated for Best Support Actor at the Oscars, and I certainly think he was good enough in this movie to win.
6 out of 10, that's just my enjoyment level, but really - quality-wise, the movie is more of an 8 or 9. Gained points for Rylance’s painting gift to Donovan at the end. Lost points for everybody turning against Donovan when he did what they asked him to do! Also – Lost points for the creepy side plot of Donovan’s kids learning about atomic bombs at school and thinking the Russians were going to attack at any moment. The height of the cold war was a scary time!
Bonus Video - I was just trying to come up with my favorite Tom Hanks movie... and there have been so many good ones, but I really loved The Money Pit - if you haven't seen that in a while, go back and check it out!