Tom Hanks is Jim Donovan, a lawyer who handles insurance disputes. Donovan is good at it: personal injury lawyers and tort lawyers know that most of these cases will never see a trial, and they start with a good idea of how the settlement will look, but Donovan is good at negotiations. It is a skill that will soon have national importance.
While Donovan is handling insurance cases, three other groups of people are converging on the storyline in different places:
- In New York, FBI agents are closing in on a Soviet spy who used the name Rudolf Abel;
- In Berlin, the East German quisling government is preparing to wall off its border, and an American student is at risk of being separated from his German professor, and more to the point, the professor’s daughter;
- In a series of remote airfields, a cadre of carefully selected pilots is introduced to a top-secret spyplane.
Soon enough, the US has a Communist agent in custody; the Communists hold a shot-down spyplane pilot and a student; and everybody, it seems, wants to make a deal. What the US needs is a master negotiator who’s not connected to the government.
Enter James B. Donovan.
Acting and Production
Look, it’s a Spielberg film with Tom Hanks. You’ve seen this team before. The remainder of the cast deliver noteworthy performances across the board. The standout is Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Colonel “Rudolf Abel.” Rylance delivers Abel’s often deadpan-humorous lines with just the tiniest eye crinkle of the born joker.
“Aren’t you afraid?” Donovan asks Abel at a tense point.
“Would it help?” Abel shoots back.
The younger actors, like Austin Stowell as Lt. Francis Gary Powers, disappear into their parts. But some small parts are played to eleven by old pros Alan Alda and Sebastian Koch (who played the playwright in the German sensation The Lives of Others 10 years ago).
A great deal of money was spent on the production; sometimes, it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Accuracy and Weapons
The tension in this movie does not depend on guns at center stage; when they’re present, they’re peripheral, and their menace is implied. They are, however, generally accurately displayed; American, Russian, and East German armed personnel have the right weapons, mostly, for the period.
One slip is the use of American half-tracks as East German vehicles. While Russia received thousands of the tracks under lend-lease, by the early 1960s they were long retired in favor of native Russian and Soviet vehicles.
Where the movie excels is the evocation of the period of the late 1950s and early sixties. A thousand small details of costumes and sets make it happen: the vehicles are quite accurate. Unlike the average movie that’s supposed to be set in 1961, where every car on screen is a 1961 model, these “1961” roads show a mixed bag of 1961 and earlier cars. Abel goes off to jail in a Plymouth with fins.
The bottom line
Bridge of Spies is something some of us know well: a slice of the Cold War. As usual for a Spielberg film, it has an uplifting message, laid on thickly enough to suggest the director has a low opinion of the wits of his audiences. It’s a fun flick and well worth a couple hours of your time while it’s still on big screens.
For more information
This is the book the film is based on:
This is Donovan’s own (co-written) book; this is a paperback reprint edition, but the Kindle edition is only $1.99:
This is a biography of Donovan:
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page:
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page:
- Rotten Tomatoes review page:
- Wikipedia page: