Steven Spielberg has done it again. I went to see Bridge of Spies the other night and it is nothing short of brilliant. Centred on the trial of accused Russian spy Rudolph Abel in New York City, and the subsequent spy swap for U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers, this movie is full of suspense as it carefully unfolds the story of the surveillance of alleged spy Abel, his capture, trial, the fear within America of nuclear attack, the preparations for American U-2 spy flights in Soviet airspace, the downing of Powers’ plane, his arrest and sentencing in a Russian court, and, eventually, the mission of New York lawyer James Donovan (who had been recruited by the U.S. government to defend Rudolph Abel so that the U.S. is perceived to be effecting due justice) to arrange a prisoner exchange — Russian spy Abel for American spy Powers — in East Berlin where a wall had just been erected to stem the flow of civilian flight from east to west.
Spielberg deftly intersperses the U-2 flight training and preparation in between scenes of Donovan (Tom Hanks) doing his best for his client despite the opposition of the majority of U.S. citizens. Donovan refers at one point to Powers as being the most hated man in America after Abel, and himself. His family endures threats and violence because of his defence of the stoic Col. Abel, who is portrayed beautifully by British actor Mark Rylance. Donovan argues to Judge Byers against the death penalty, that there may come a time when they need to redeem a spy of their own. Byers (played by Dakin Matthews) agrees and sentences him to 30 years — an extremely unpopular decision which unleashes a lot of hatred toward Donovan and his family.
Sure enough, along comes Francis Gary Powers (played by Austin Stowell). We see a unique view of the Russians building the wall in 1961 and the bitterness of west Berliners for the devastation of their city by the Russians. Here Spielberg inserts an interesting sidebar that didn’t get a lot of press at the time. A young university student, Frederick Pryor (played by Will Rogers) is in Berlin working on his thesis on communist economics. As he tries to rescue his professor and the professor’s daughter, he is detained at the wall, then imprisoned as a spy. CIA operative Gamber (played by Victor Verhaeghe), coaching Donovan behind the scenes through the exchange negotiations, couldn’t care less about Pryor but Donovan is determined the exchange will not happen unless they get this young man as well as Powers. The tension on the bridge as Donovan waits for confirmation that Pryor is being released at Checkpoint Charlie is palpable as Agent Gamber keeps trying to get Abel to cross for the exchange and he sides with Donovan and waits.
Recently, I wrote a review of the classic movie Thirteen Days, a movie which gives a glimpse into what life was like back in the early 60s with two super powers threatening nuclear war. This movie, also, gives a retro-look at the fear the cold war instilled in Americans (and their neighbours), and also, to a lesser extent, at life in Berlin — a divided city where most people on the eastern side lived with fear, deprivation, and loss of civil liberties.
Even with knowledge of the basic story — which is, afterall, history — this movie resonates with tension, suspense, and empathy for a lawyer trying to thread a moral way through a labyrinth of political contradictions, jealousies, and government disinvolvement. Several statements over the end visuals tell what happened to the various main characters which brings closure to the events. You can learn more about this major part of American history at numerous sites around the web. As different parts of US documentation becomes declassified, there are more questions than answers about some of the events portrayed in what is, beginning to end, another magnificent movie from Spielberg and Hanks. * * * * *