When is a spy movie not a spy movie? Bridge of Spies has all of the trappings of a spy movie, espionage, hidden communications, interrogations, secret identities, a race against the clock, and worldwide consequences hanging in the balance, but it’s as far from a “spy movie” as you can get. Instead, Bridge of Spies is a film about spies. Steven Spielberg has teamed up once again with Tom Hanks (with a script by the Coen brothers) bring us a true story from the height of the Cold War, a story of subtle legal and political maneuvering with the fate of not only two spies but two nations hanging in the balance. The result is a tense, thrilling, yet beautifully quiet film that focuses on the human element of international espionage, and the way the lives of those who only wish to serve their country are used or discarded as situations change.
Depending on your age or your ability to remember what you learned in school, you might be familiar with the broad strokes of the story of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, who was captured while undercover in the US passing secrets to Russia. What you probably don’t know is the story of James Donovan, the lawyer who defended Abel in court. Donovan is given no choice by his firm to defend the most hated man in America, but he takes on the responsibility with sincerity and a sense of principle that sets him apart from the crowd. He believes Abel deserves more than just a show trial, despite his obvious guilt, and he does everything in his power to provide a proper defense despite the toll that public opinion takes on his family.
Things take a turn, however, when an American pilot in a U-2 spy plane is shot down inside the Soviet union, and Donovan is called upon to negotiate a prisoner exchange. For this to work he’ll have to travel to East Berlin, across the newly constructed wall, without CIA backup and as an independent party, to meet with Soviet and East German officials to negotiate a swap despite not being an official representative of the US. The clock is ticking with both sides worried their spy will crack under interrogation and spill secrets, but things are further complicated when an innocent American student is captured in East Berlin and held as a spy. Donovan insists on including him in the trade, but the CIA would happily abandon him for their real spy. Will Donovan be able to hold to his principles and pull off a negotiation win, or will some pieces have to be sacrificed in the name of preventing World War III?
There’s no action in Bridge of Spies. (Well, ok, there’s one small bit of action, but it’s not concerned with the main plot.) There are no shootouts, chases, escapes, or explosions. Instead, Spielberg has built a movie about spies based around conversations and negotiations. Rather than focus on the actions of spies, Spielberg has focused on the spies themselves, on the toll their job takes and the emotional consequences of being caught. Spielberg turns Abel from a hated enemy into a human being, with loyalties and feelings to be considered. And when your enemy becomes a human being that raises all sorts of questions about the ethics both of how we treat our enemies and of the demands we make on those we send into hostile territory on missions of danger.
Early in the film, Donovan, an insurance attorney, is debating with his opposition about the nature of the case they’re currently debating. Donovan’s client, the insurance company, says that their client was only involved in one accident so they should only have to pay one claim, while the other side insists that since the man hit 5 different cars he actually caused 5 accidents and the insurance company should should have to pay out on each separate claim. It’s a scene that seems inconsequential to the story but it establishes Donovan as a man to whom words have meaning, and it’s not a surprise later to see him argue against his wife for calling Abel a traitor when in fact the man is not American so cannot betray America. That sort of clarity of intent defines the character, and Tom Hanks uses that trait to build a character with a different sort of strength from what we’re used to seeing. Donovan stands on principle not because he’s pig-headed or stubborn, but because he follows the rules to which we all have agreed, rules of language, of law, of humanity, and of society, even when our emotions might tell us to override those rules. So when Donovan successfully convinces the courts to forego the death sentence for Abel, it feels not like a victory for America’s enemies but a victory for law and society over chaos and retribution.
Hanks makes Donovan a man of deep feelings but of strongly contained emotion. He’s not the sort to yell or curse or get visibly upset, but it’s obvious that he has a strong emotional investment in seeing justice and fairness win the day. In that way, Donovan and Abel are a perfect match. Mark Rylance gives Abel a weary, melancholy air, but one that doesn’t show fear or despair at his situation. Donovan is constantly surprised when he asks Abel why he isn’t having a stronger outward reaction to events and Abel simply replies, “Would it help?” In that way, Donovan and Abel are the most adult characters in the film, strong and unmoving in a sea of anger, suspicion, betrayal, panic, and fear.
It’s a mark of Spielberg’s maturity as a director that he would choose to make a film about two calm men in the center of a building storm rather than about the storm itself. There are plenty of stories that could have been told about the Cold War in general or these specific events in particular, but Bridge of Spies is perhaps the least likely possible outcome, and one which only Spielberg could have made. There’s no flash, no flair, and no distractions, just intense drama of men caught in a seemingly impossible situation trying to talk their way out of it. In an age where bigger and louder seem to be the standing orders in the film industry, it’s refreshing to see a film so resolutely quiet. Sometimes the greatest drama comes not from a shouting but from a whisper of a film.