Steven Spielberg’s newest film, Bridge of Spies, lands us in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the tense Cold War. When Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested for supposedly being a Soviet spy, Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) takes the case to defend him. Donovan quickly realizes the job does not come without its hazards. People frequently ask him why he would defend a traitor and suggest he might be a Soviet sympathizer. His family’s home is even shot at. Later, when an American U2 spy plane pilot is captured, the CIA asks Donovan to step in and and help negotiate a trade in Berlin, where the wall has just been constructed.
The most memorable scene set in America was when Donovan comes home to find his son prepping for the bombs to drop. He shares with his father all that he was taught in school, as he fills up the bathtub in case the water were to suddenly be shot off. It’s obvious Donovan doesn’t quite know how to respond to the whole situation. Perhaps he knows the harsh truth that everything his son is doing would be pointless in the event of nuclear war, or he just doesn’t want to discourage his son. But then his son brings up the trial in a way that everyone must be thinking, “You’re not a communist so why are you defending him?”
One of the most fascinating scenes in the film shows the building of the Berlin Wall. All around the organized men stacking blocks of concrete on fresh cement are people panicked and scrambling to get on the East side. We see people rushing through the holes before they are filled and people climbing out of buildings that align with the wall, hanging out of windows to outstretched arms below. Among this chaos is a young American student on a bicycle trying to get to friends on the West side in time to get them out. When they are too late, the young man is arrested under suspicion that he is an American spy and becomes a complication in Donovan’s negotiations.
While Spielberg has made some truly great movies, my honest opinion is that Bridge of Spies is not one of them. It is, however, a pretty good film. The tone is serious, tense and cold, perfect for a Cold War thriller. Visually, it has a modern noir feel that I think shows the era well. And Donovan is a great character, played skillfully by Hanks and he quickly becomes the heart of the film. That’s all well and good, but there is something that fell very flat about this film that didn’t keep me riveted, or even caring much at the end.
That being said, The Academy decided to award Bridge of Spies with six Oscar nominations. Mark Rylance is nominated for best supporting actor, in his portrayal of a very mild mannered accused Soviet spy. The film is also nominated for best picture, sound mixing, production design, original score and original screenplay.
If you’re up for a dry, no nonsense, not so thrilling spy thriller, then try Bridge of Spies. Enjoy a portrait of 1950s America living in fear of Soviet spies living among them, or worse, fellow Americans defending their rights as prisoners. Stick around for the more interesting second half set in Berlin as the wall is built and Donovan has to commute from the east to the west with a cold and lay down the law in his negotiations.
“Well, the boss isn’t always right. But, he’s always the boss.”