By: Kevin Jordan
Finally, a decent history lesson.
If there are two people in Hollywood you can depend on delivering a decent-to-great movie, they are Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Yes, Spielberg is responsible for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and, yes, he’s still very, very sorry. But aside from that, you always leave their movies thinking you at least got your money’s worth. Bridge of Spies is no different, but with the added bonus of teaching you something about history that you didn’t know before. This is the complaint I had about Pawn Sacrifice and 42 (among others) – they just rehash the major event(s) you already know about and don’t dig beneath the surface because then America (or its government) might not look so awesome. Conversely, Bridge of Spies almost forgets to show the major event at all.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m referring to the U-2 incident in 1960. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s because American history classes failed you spectacularly. In 1960, an American U-2 reconnaissance (read: spy) plane was shot down over Russia. Its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), was captured, as were large pieces of the plane, including its cameras. If Bridge of Spies was following the blueprint of those other films, it would have centered on that event and the things leading up to it as well as focusing on whatever quirky character traits Powers may have had. Instead, the film focuses on the lawyer negotiating for his release, Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks). Even better, it gives us a quick overview of the capture of a Russian spy in 1957, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), the initial construction of the Berlin Wall, and the arrest of an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), in East Germany in 1960. If you knew that any of these other things happened and were tied to the U-2 incident, you are either a Cold War historian/fanatic or you are much older than I am and still have a good memory.
Let me put all of things together for you – Donovan is tasked by his law firm partner (Alan Alda) to provide a defense of Abel in order to show that America cares about law and Abel is given a fair trial. This is immediately trashed by public opinion and the judge presiding over the case as all of them willfully ignore the rule of law because (a) the judge is only interested in protecting his reputation, not the law and (b) hang that commie traitor. One of the more interesting details of the film is that Donovan is constantly correcting people on that term – Abel isn’t a traitor because he’s not a US citizen; he’s just a spy (allegedly). It’s a great character-building moment (among many others) showing that Donovan isn’t interested in politics or racism, he’s just interested in doing his job and defending the constitution. He even goes so far as to explain to the judge how this very concept will allow the USA to take the high road, but the judge just doesn’t care and neither do the ignorant people who think spewing hatred is the equivalent of patriotism.
Incidentally, the first act of the film is filled with this message and is a great allegory to the current Muslim scare we are experiencing today. People have bought into the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) spewed by some in the media and government that every Muslim is evil, just like their parents/grandparents did during the second Red Scare of the 1950’s and ‘60’s (as did their parents/grandparents in the first Red Scare of the 1910’s and ‘20’s). The first act portrays that FUD in a somewhat sanitized way, but gets the message across just the same – that people do despicable things like shoot at houses, give dirty looks, and bad mouth others who have the temerity to act like actual human beings towards those they are supposed to hate. In other words, they act like the very ideological American that those “patriots” claim to be.
(Sorry, that got heavy.)
Anyway, getting back to tying things together, the second act begins with the capture of Powers and Pryor and the CIA asking Donovan to negotiate a prisoner swap – Abel for Powers. As you should have surmised by now, Donovan isn’t the type of guy to leave a man hanging (Pryor), so he works to get both Americans released in exchange for Abel and the rest of the movie commences.
If you’ve seen any of the promos on television for Bridge of Spies, you may have noticed the extreme hyperbole regarding its Oscar-worthiness. If you buy into any of these promos you will almost assuredly be disappointed in the film – it’s a very good film, but not mind-blowing. Hanks gives his usual A-game performance, overshadowing everyone but Rylance, who steals the show in his limited screen time. Also, kudos to the Coen brothers and Matt Charman for a very tight screenplay – I usually don’t like what the Coens put out (O Brother, Where Art Thou? not withstanding), but this one spoke to me in a very good way. A history way.
Rating: Ask for some of your tax dollars back for a history fail in school, but don’t ask for anything back for this film.