With Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Austin Stowell, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemons.
Bridge of Spies recalls an exchange of one spy for another during the Cold War. The movie has a spy vs spy feel to it, as if the comic strip by Mad magazine were populated with real life players. Several scenes with mirrors emphasize this reciprocal, tit for tat political climate that pitted the United States against the USSR. The movie opens with the Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) painting his self portrait in a mirror. Later, a judge who will decide his fate prepares for a night out in front of a mirror. For every step the USSR takes to perform nefarious deeds, the US does the same.
Scenes with Abel’s lawyer preparing for trial are followed by scenes of the mission of Gary Powers, a young pilot about to spy on enemy terrain from 75,000 feet with very sophisticated cameras. Secret cameras employed to catch evildoers feel contemporary. Spielberg’s expertise as a storyteller includes a tense, dark tone in a nation where no one trusts anyone suspected of being a Communist. The CIA were dogged in their commitment to the capture of spies. This doggedness sometimes skipped the rule of law. One of the CIA operatives snarls at Donovan (Tom Hanks), the lawyer defending Abel: “Don’t go boy scout on me. There are no rules here.” As a result of exchanges like this, Donovan becomes more determined to provide due process.
In a time when suspected enemies of the state are locked up without rights (in Guantanamo) or subject to military tribunals which do not follow the rule of law, the movie does not seem about a long ago era. The performances are excellent, especially Mark Rylance as Abel. He can turn a pared down phrase into a punch line. Hanks’ brow is as furrowed as a bloodhound as he does his best to match the excellence of the British actor.
A nickel that Abel can slice open with a razor contains secret information from the Russians. American pilots are provided cyanide in the shape of a needle inserted into a narrow coin. This was intended to be used if you were caught by the enemy, as Gary Powers is. There it is again, that mirror image of deceit, using a coin, a bit of money.
Meanwhile, civilians have other problems. School children practice duck and cover drills. Donovan’s young son prepares to survive by filling his bathtub and sink with water. As predicted, Donovan is shunned by his association with Abel, and at one point his family is threatened by violence. After Abel is convicted, Donovan’s law partner (Alan Alda) does not expect him to bring the case to the Supreme Court on appeal for procedural reasons. That Donovan does so as a matter of conscience turns out to be a wise strategic move.
The movie is about something more than just the Cold War. It is about relationships and common ground. It shows how art can bring us solace. When Abel returns to the USSR, he leaves a gift for Donovan, which may seem slightly sentimental, but there is also something well earned in the tears it might make you shed. How do two people grow to love each other? Through mutual respect, and shared struggle. This is what the two men do — Abel and his representative.
In a time of polarized politics, I wish it happened more.