Saturday Matinee 2015 047: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Bridge of Spies poster

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.

Abel (Mark Rylance) in the dock, with Donovan (Tom Hanks) as his attorney.

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.

Abel handles an encrypted message.

“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.

Bridge of Spies Ossis

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.

Bridge of Spies Abel

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.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:

This entry was posted in Book and Film Reviews on November 28, 2015 by Hognose.

About Hognose

Former Special Forces 11B2S, later 18B, weapons man. (Also served in intelligence and operations jobs in SF).

3 thoughts on “Saturday Matinee 2015 047: Bridge of Spies (2015)”

Wes November 30, 2015 at 22:01

Well-written & accurate review, it was a great film & a good way to have a teaching opportunity with those not familiar with the Cold War (which wasn’t for many, I assure you). I will agree that, just as Val Kilmer’s performace as Holliday MAKES “Tombstone”, Mark Rylance absolutely nails Abel – that’s probably one of the most understated but award-worthy characterizations EVUH.

Hmm, West Berlin (yes, kiddies, it was occupied, 4 Powers and changing of the guards & everything) in the 60’s was cowboy country – something was always happening. Historically it should be pointed out that, if people get the sense that East German officialdom had a bit of “attitude” it should be remembered that they got treated like krappola by the Soviets, who graciously gave them both an inferiority complex and institutional paranoia. (Soviets were fine to deal with generally although they didn’t bathe as often as we take for granted; quite often a real fear was getting shot by a trigger-happy VoPo.)

One minor glitch at the very end, though. While it makes good film when one looks up the word ‘ominous’, Glienicke Bridge wasn’t really festooned with all the wire & barricades. Just small shacks, drop-arms & guards at each end. But I get it, and it filmed very well. On the plus side, they nailed the vehicle & bumper markings of the Berlin Brigade cold. 2x Thumbs-Up.

Hognose Post author November 30, 2015 at 23:52

I suspect the barricades were a temporary thing whilst the Wall was being erected. The chaos of the wall’s first days seems to have been nailed.

Best thing about the Vopos was blowing by them at 120+ on the Autobahn Helmstedt-Berlin knowing they couldn’t stop you in a US tagged car. (If they did, instructions were to keep demanding a Soviet officer). Worst thing was having to kill time lest you arrive early and get ticketed by the US MPs at the opposite end of the run, who would do so if you arrived too early to have been strictly observing the posted speed limits.

A guy in my SFQC class had been a USMLM driver, and the Soviets actually shot his officer dead circa 1983. (USMLM officers were Russian speakers, their drivers were NCOs fluent in German).

Wes December 1, 2015 at 06:17

Quite possibly the wire a very brief thing; caught a photo awhile back from right at that period & none in evidence but it worked for a great film. Did a brief stint with MLM while one of their drivers caught a DLI slot & always their goal to keep as many credentialed personnel as the Huebner-Malinin agreement would allow. And on a visceral level, yes, blowing by their Schuco windup toys in an Interceptor-equipped piece of American metal is quite satisfying. Still the eventual Bronco or Gelandewagen wasn’t a bad idea either; better in the woods, Sov tanks make nasty ruts.

Have no words for your friend who must certainly live with being held at gunpoint unable to render aid. Hat-tip to him, and RIP MAJ Nicholson.