Bridge of Spies is a Cold War drama set in the early 1960s and is based on a true story. Insurance lawyer Jim Donovan is asked to defend Rudolf Abel, a foreigner who has been arrested as a spy and is about to go on trial. The Americans want to be seen giving Rudolf a fair trial, although a less than guilty verdict from the jury is not acceptable. Jim’s initial reluctance is overcome as he meets Rudolf and works as any good defence lawyer should; examining the evidence, challenging the search warrant, and eventually reasoning with the Judge to negotiate life imprisonment, rather than the death penalty. In a parallel story, US Airman Francis Gary Powers, is shot down and captured whilst flying spy missions for the CIA. He is interrogated by the Russians and the two narratives intertwine as Jim is sent to Berlin to negotiate a prisoner exchange; swapping the Russian spy Rudolf Abel, for American Powers. But just to throw a spanner in the works, American Economics student Frederic Pryor, is arrested by the East Germans as a suspected spy, just as the Berlin wall is erected. The Germans want in on the action and Jim has another American citizen’s life on his conscience.
Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) is introduced as an extremely competent insurance lawyer. He meets with his counterpart in a bar and demonstrates how well he can use words and semantics to prove that a motor crash insurance claim will not be negotiated further. He is strong, insistent and humorous without being patronising.
Jim has been ‘selected’ by his law firm’s senior partners to defend a man who may or may not be a Russian spy. It is a case in which he has no experience, one that may cause his family problems, and a case he has to lose.
Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is an artist. In the opening scenes, he is studying himself in a mirror, posing and pausing to continue painting a self portrait. The multiple images of the same man confirm that we are looking at a someone who is not as he first seems. He is movements are slow and without fear – he is the epitome of boring. The camera follows him as he leaves his apartment and catches an underground train; he is innocuous yet is followed by the FBI. On a crowded platform, the FBI lose Rudolf, panicking in their search, only for him to emerge from the subway, literally bumping in to him on the steps. Rudolf travels to the river where he sets up his easel and starts painting. He reaches under his bench and retrieves a small object. Back at his apartment he carefully opens the coin to pull out a small fold of paper covered in numbers. The FBI raid that follows sees Rudolf bewildered yet still calm; he comes across as not quite grasping the situation. It is clear that he is a spy but never once does he admit his guilt.
The character development and interaction between Jim and Rudolf is built up throughout and they have an unspoken respect for each other. Jim is not interested in Rudolf’s guilt, although he is concerned about how passive he is, regularly asking if he’s worried, to which Rudolf responds “would it help if I was?” These little interactions are peppered through the film and underline how stoic and loyal Rudolf is. It also becomes a running joke, breaking the tension which increases as the film progresses. Another running joke is the use of the main characters health. Rudolf has a cold and is constantly wiping his nose. Later when Jim travels to Germany to broker the deal with both the Russians and East Germans, he too develops a cold. Even the Second Secretary of the Soviet Embassy, Ivan Schischkin has a red nose during the finale on the bridge.
America in the early 1960s is shown as a country fully immersed in the Cold War. Jim is asked by the CIA to break the client/lawyer privilege in the interests of national security, and there are repercussions for his family, when their house comes under gun fire. Neither events deter Jim from his designated role. But despite this, there is nostalgia of the good old days of the Cold War; US versus Russia and East versus West. The nostalgia morphs in to propaganda as the US treat their prisoner with much more respect and humanity that the Russians, who torture theirs.
Many scenes adopt the visual look of German expressionism and film noir. There is an intense use of light and dark, providing sharp contrast with characters moving from one to the other. Particularly noticeable is the transition from the darkness of the bridge in Germany to the light warmth of New York when Jim Donovan arrives home to his family. There are other scenes where there is an unusual use of camera angles; scenes are shot from very low down and look up, giving a distorted perspective of a character. With the ceiling in shot, the scenes become crowded and threatening. There is also a very high proportion of shots with mirrors, windows, glasses and reflections, starting with the opening scene with Rudolf’s self portrait. When Jim visits the home of Judge Byers, the Judge moves between three different mirrors to focus on his tie whilst Jim tries to persuade him to keep Rudolf alive. On the surface he is not listening, however the following morning’s headlines confirm otherwise. Not all characters are as they seem, with the exception of Jim Donovan; he is an American citizen who has been asked to negotiate during a prisoner exchange. With others, there is duplicity; Abel’s wife and daughter, in a rather comic turn, Rudolf himself is a spy although he never admits his guilt (his identity is questionable – is a Russian spy with a Scottish accent. Ivan Schischkin is another who does not reveal his true identity. There are games played by all sides, and as the stakes increase with Jim in Germany, so does the tension. Jim is a gambler, not willing to take no for an answer, and it is his determination, passion and negotiation skills that sees one Russian spy released in exchange for two Americans.
Despite the drama and heightened tension during the second half of the film, there are plenty of light moments which give the characters humanity and creates empathy, which also ensure the film is not too heavy. Parallels and contrasts are drawn between the treatment of the captured US spy and the captured Soviet spy; the former was unable to follow the strict CIA orders to commit suicide in case of capture, which makes the audience wonder how much he may have revealed under torture. The loyalty shown by the stoic Rudolf Abel is confirmation that he would never tell – something the Russians are clearly not so sure of, when he is ushered to the back seat of the waiting car on the bridge.
A Bridge of Spies is an entertaining yet nostalgic visit to the days of the Cold War, where both sides knew the rules of war and engagement. And although based on a true story, it is refreshing for a Hollywood film not to be centred around comic book superheroes, a remake or yet another sequel. The film is visually stunning, with a narrative that cleverly brings together three strands with humour, drama and thrilling tension. Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by the Cohen brothers and Matt Charman, and brought to life with the performances of Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance et al. Oscars will be won.