Issue 12: Analysis—Bridge of Spies (2015)

For the past two issues we’ve travelled back to the Golden Age of Italian Cinema. This time, we bring our analysis bang up-to-date with a look at some Cold War double dealing, courtesy of Messrs Spielberg and Hanks…

Bridge spies1Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay: Matt Charman with Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Source: Inspired by true events

Synopsis: *Spoilers* It’s 1957 and the height of the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union. Each side is paranoid about the possibility of the other side starting a nuclear war and of spies stealing national secrets.

Bridge spies2Brooklyn-based insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked by the US government to provide a legal defence for Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Russian with a British passport who has been arrested on suspicion of being a spy (an offence that carries the maximum punishment of death by electric chair). Donovan, who had previously undertaken criminal work (including being part of the Nuremberg prosecution team) agrees.

While the government’s plan is to simply provide Abel a competent defence before he is convicted and sentenced to death – in a bid to be seen as upholding the principles of justice – Donovan gets his teeth into the case and starts to form a bond with the vilified Abel.

The rigged trial reaches a foregone conclusion and Abel is duly convicted. However, Donovan persuades the biased judge (Dakin Matthews) to sentence Abel to prison, rather than impose the death penalty; reasoning that if an American were to be suspected of similar charges in Russia, the US would have a bargaining chip. The judge hands Abel a 30-year prison term.

Against the wishes of his wife Mary (Amy Ryan) and senior law firm partner (Alan Alda), Donovan pursues an appeal. He takes the case to the Supreme Court, but loses by the narrowest margin.

Donovan returns to his law firm, but is given the cold shoulder due to his vigorous defence of the ‘enemy’.

Meanwhile, an elite team of army pilots is recruited to fly covert missions over the Soviet Union, using U-2 planes fitted with cameras to capture crucial information regarding the Russian’s nuclear capabilities.

One of the pilots, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down while snapping pictures in Soviet airspace. Eschewing his orders to immediately commit suicide, he is captured and thrown into a Russian jail where he is interrogated, but refuses to talk.

Bridge spies 3Donovan is contacted and tasked with negotiating a simple trade – Abel for Powers. He is asked to travel in an unofficial capacity to a divided Germany and broker the deal with Soviet representatives.

East Germany is in the process of dividing from the West. A US economics graduate, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who’s studying in the West, gets trapped on the wrong side of newly-build Berlin Wall and is arrested as a spy. Donovan finds out and decides to try and get a two-for-one exchange.

Telling his wife he’s headed to London on business, Donovan travels to Germany with his CIA handlers and begins the process of negotiating the exchange.

While the Powers exchange is simple, things are complicated by the fact that East Germany, where Pryor is being held, doesn’t want to be part of the Soviet negotiation. The CIA pressures Donovan to forget about Pryor, but he pushes for the release of both men.

Donovan finally gets all sides to agree and they meet on Glienicke Bridge to complete the exchange. After a last-minute hiccup, the trade is made. Donovan gets to say a final ‘goodbye’ to Abel and returns home to Brooklyn.

Analysis: *Spoilers* While obvious parallels can be drawn between the themes contained in Bridge of Spies and the current state of terrorist-induced peril enveloping much of the world, the first thing to note about the film is that, at its heart, this is an old-fashioned Hollywood thriller.

The Cold War setting, the film’s moral heart and the involvement of two great stalwarts of American cinema (Spielberg and Hanks) have combined to produce a classy, finely acted and highly-watchable piece of cinema.

Hanks is in full-on Jimmy Stewart mode as a true American everyman rallying against injustice and trying everything he think of to ensure both Pryor and Powers are returned home. His scenes with Rylance’s Abel are particularly effective. Rylance infuses his character with quiet humility and compassion that elevates the role to impressive heights. While he plays a supporting part, it’s his performance that lingers long in the memory. Elsewhere, there’s not a false note among the rest of the cast.

The script zips along, with touches of humour scattered throughout and Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography ensures the film (especially the street scenes in Brooklyn and Germany) looks wonderful.

In other creative hands, this could have become a far grittier, downbeat and even jingoistic piece of anti-terrorist propaganda. However, here we have something warm and familiar. It’s a film that embodies the ideals that America purports to uphold and live by; values that many would argue have become lost, or at the very least diluted as the idea of the American dream becomes a nostalgic fantasy.

In Spies, Hanks’ Donovan is American values and prosperity personified. A partner in a respected law firm, he spends his days negotiating settlements on behalf of insurance companies and enjoys a comfortable life in the suburbs with his picture-perfect family.

However, the Cold War is never far away and  presents a constant threat to the very fabric of American life. Following his capture, Abel becomes the face of this threat.

Interestingly, Donovan doesn’t see it that way. In fact, throughout the film, he acts as the voice of reason in a polarised world where you’re either on the side of ‘good’ or ‘evil’.

Abel is viewed by American society and the government as the enemy and, as such, deserves to die. However, Donovan sees a man who was sent by his country to do a job and performed that job honourably, faithfully serving the nation to which he has allegiance.

The more time he spends with Abel, the greater Donovan’s respect becomes – recognising the ‘American’ values that the Russian displays as he refuses to co-operate with the authorities and stays true to the Soviet Union. The lawyer even develops an appeal that rests on US Constitutional issues, arguing that Abel should enjoy its protections, despite being a foreigner undertaking illegal actions.

In Cold War America, it’s no surprise that this argument didn’t fly, but that doesn’t negate Donovan’s noble intentions. He’s the ultimate mediator – seeing things from both sides and trying to achieve a politically sensitive and humanitarian outcome that leaves both sides happy (which, in this case, meant not firing nuclear weapons at each other).

As the story unfolds, Donovan finds his sense of morality, humanity and patriotism tested to its limits as he leaves his family and his beloved country to try and broker the release of the two young men captured on foreign soils whose futures look pretty bleak.

So, is the film a runaway five-star success? Well, there are a few negatives.

Firstly, aside from some mutterings about Nuremberg, Donovan’s motivation for wading into the situation is a little thin, especially when his precious family is placed under threat by people who really don’t approve of what he’s doing. Secondly, there is a sense of predictability, especially after Donovan’s arrival in Germany. Aside from some quick-thinking as the deal starts to fall apart and some last-minute shenanigans on the bridge, there really isn’t much doubt as to the outcome of events.

Ultimately, however, this is a film that deserves its plaudits. It’s the type of film that shows off Hollywood filmmaking at its best – big stars, big money and a story that really fills the screen.

What can screenwriters take from Bridge of Spies? The main thing to take away is not to discount the power of ‘a good story, well told’. While messages and themes in a script are important, if the material is strong enough, they don’t have to be forced down audience’s throats. It’s a fine line to walk, but one that, for the most part, Spies does well.

Nowadays, there seems to be a feeling that a film either has to be a full-on, jaw-dropping action flick stuffed with set pieces or a quirky, offbeat indie to get the attention of audiences and critics. However, films like Spies occupy that middle ground, a place which all too often awash with factory-made, identikit mediocrity.

If your screenwriting dreams lie in creating solid Hollywood fare, Spies is a prime example of how good things can happen when the right material is placed in the right creative hands.

Issue 13 of RSL is out on 28 December.