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Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance
Director: Steven Spielberg
Bridge of Spies - Directed by Steven Spielberg Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
When I was a kid, the family would gather around the TV set nightly to watch the evening news. It was eight days before my 13th birthday when the famous exchange of spies between the United States and the Soviet Union took place and I still remember it. Russian agent Col. Rudolf Abel was exchanged for downed U2 pilot Gary Powers at the height of tensions between the two powers. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba had taken place less than a year before.
But the news usually gives you just the surface information. The back story has a depth to it that a short story in the media doesn't capture. Bridge of Spies is the dramatic story of that prisoner exchange.
The story starts in 1957 just after McCarthyism had run roughshod over alleged communists in America and the Red Scare was still very much alive. Col. Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy, is arrested and James Donovan, a lawyer who had aided the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg, is recruited to defend him. The job had been turned down by a number of other lawyers before Donovan took on the case.
Tom Hanks is the perfect actor to play Donovan with his persona of the quiet, calm, resourceful man of character. The man who upholds the principles he believes in and rebuffs attempts to subvert them. As Abel's lawyer, he is publicly reviled. He knows the government wants to give the appearance of a fair trial, but acquittal is not an option. The judge as much as tells Donovan this when he raises objections to tainted evidence, evidence seized without due process.
Abel is convicted. Four years earlier the Rosenbergs had been electrocuted at Sing Sing as Soviet spies. Donovan meets with the judge privately before sentencing to persuade him face-to-face that it would be a good idea to give Abel a prison sentence rather than the chair. He could come in handy some day should the Soviets capture one of their own.
Donovan proves correct as, in a parallel story, we are shown the recruitment, training and mission of CIA pilot Gary Powers. Power's U2 spy plane is shot down in 1960. Ironically, I discovered later, material the Rosenbergs delivered to the Soviets was instrumental in creating the technology that took out Powers. The stage is set for the spy swap.
Donovan is recruited to negotiate the deal as a private citizen. The government does not want to be directly involved. As negotiations are set to begin in Berlin, the East Germans try to stop the hemorrhage of people fleeing communism for the freedom of West Berlin by building the Berlin Wall. An American student, trying to escape with his East German girlfriend, is captured and held as a spy. The film's depiction of the building of the Berlin Wall and the desperation of people trying to escape is truly chilling.
Donovan's CIA handlers tell him the Reds will try and swap the student, Frederic Pryor, instead of Powers. The government doesn't give a fig about Pryor. Powers is the priority. The only priority.
So much for the details of the story. The real story is Donovan. His heroic character as he rejects CIA attempts to have him violate attorney-client privilege. His courage in the face of violent protests from rabid anti-communists for defending Abel. His courage in appealing Abel's conviction to the Supreme Court where he narrrowly loses in a 5-4 decision. His development of a friendship with this KGB spy. His determination to get Pryor back as part of the spy swap deal in direct contravention of his orders from the CIA.
Rudolf Abel, well played by British actor and playwright Mark Rylance, is also a sympathetic character. A man of conviction who will not betray his country. A quiet, resolute man like Donovan who enjoys painting as a hobby. A man inspired by a friend of his father who stood up to government thugs who beat him repeatedly. His father's friend stood up again when knocked down. Abel calls him the standing man. And it has significance in the final moments of the story.
As a movie, it is more fascinating than gripping. It could have done with some judicious editing of its two and a half hour length. But the story is an heroic one. Two men of character, one a Soviet spy, the other an American lawyer, who become friends and who play a significant part in each other's lives.
Ayn Rand wrote about what she calls sense of life - an emotional estimate one gets from art and from other people, not because of their expressed convictions but because of who they are. Their character. In her novels, for example, one of the heroes of We the Living is Andrei Taganov, an avowed communist and an officer in the secret police. The character that appealed to her in Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis was Petronius, "the symbol of Roman decadence", not Vinicius, the purported hero who she describes as a "cardboard figure". In Les Miserables, the villain Javert has a certain nobility about him that can't be denied. A visionary dedication that comes out in the musical when he sings "Stars" and in his ultimate suicide.
It is this nobility of character, despite professed beliefs, that make us like the character of the KGB spy Rudolf Abel as Donovan did in real life. And it is that nobility of character that plays an important role in the climactic moment of the movie.
It is an important film with relevance for our own time. Today there is a growing paranoia about terrorism and Islamism that parallels the Red Scare of the 50s, which is well related in the movie. There is a palpable desire on the part of governments to override our civil liberties and our values in the name of security. Domestic spying, increased police presence and violations of the constitution abound. Think Gitmo. Think Abu Ghraib. Think water-boarding. Think security screening procedures at airports that would have been anathema fifty years ago. The list goes on.
Oscar prediction: It may well be nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor for Tom Hanks and Best Supporting Actor for Mark Rylance. But the movie is a bit too plodding to win Best Picture (mind you, the endlessly boring Birdman won last year so who knows, but The Walk is a better bet in my view). Hanks has a good chance for Best Actor, but I lean towards Joseph Gordon-Levitt for The Walk. Mark Rylance is my pick so far for Best Supporting Actor. His understated performance is picture perfect.
This review also appears at my personal website, The Jolly Libertarian