Bridge of Spies


Steven Spielberg’s entertaining true life account of a chapter in the Cold War concerns a crucial negotiation by a brave attorney (Tom Hanks) who goes way out on a limb in East Berlin. Hopefully I’m not alone feeling the same ‘narrative undertow’ in the storytelling style — the movie works, but it’s also aggravating.

Bridge of Spies
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD
2015 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 141 min. / Street Date February 2, 2016 / 39.99
Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Will Rogers, Austin Stowell, Mikhail Gorevoy, Sebastian Koch, Burghart Kalussner.
Janusz Kaminski
Film Editor Michael Kahn
Original Music Thomas Newman
Written by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Produced by Kristie Macosko Krieger, Marc Platt, Steven Spielberg
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Steven Spielberg doing a genre movie is usually good news, and if you discount Forrest Gump most everybody has fond memories of Tom Hanks. A period picture about a fresh real-life Cold War intrigue from the early ’60s sounds great too. So how did we end up with Bridge of Spies, a movie that is always interesting, yet says little of interest about its subject matter? The story plays, and Tom Hanks is charming company, so the picture gets by as basic entertainment.

Back in 1957, the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy operating quietly in New York City. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a private attorney from a prestigious firm, is asked to donate his services to defend the spy at trial. Jim is dismayed to discover that everyone expects Jim to play dead and let the man be convicted. Even the judge treats the trial as a rubber-stamp formality. Donovan’s wife Mary (Amy Ryan) fears of social backlash come true when shots are fired through the Donovans’ window and a policeman treats him like a traitor. Donovan’s appeals on procedural irregularities fail, but he succeeds in persuading the original judge not to invoke the death penalty. Three years later, keeping Abel alive has an unforeseen benefit — U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured by the Soviets, and having someone to trade means that we might get Powers back. But the Berlin Wall is going up. U.S. – Soviet relations are at such a low point that there’s very little formal contact. The C.I.A. contacts Donovan again and asks him to serve as an unofficial civilian mediator to make the swap. On scary trips into East Germany, Donovan encounters major obstacles beyond his adversary’s duplicitous negotiating strategy. The East Germans have seized an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). Donovan wants to include the young man in the swap deal, but nobody on our side will make his return a high priority. The East Germans seize on the swap as an opportunity to force the U.S. to recognize the DDR as a nation. The East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch of The Lives of Others & Black Book) tries to pressure Donovan, by seeing that he spends a night in jail. To top it off, the top-secret mission requires Donovan to tell his wife that he’s on a routine trip to London.

With the help of writers Matt Charman, assisted by Ethan & Joel Coen, Spielberg tells his story clearly and concisely, a skill he’s never lacked. But the ‘pitch’ of the script grates at every turn. I said up top that the show has nothing to say beyond the facts of the case, but that’s not strictly true. Spielberg seems incapable of telling stories without first removing all hints of ambivalence from the motives of his lead characters. For example, in Schindler’s List Spielberg can’t let the war profiteer Schindler leave the stage without making him an unequivocal good guy. After three hours of admirable restraint and neutrality, he insists on an absurd, mawkish exit scene that contradicts Schindler’s basic character.

Spielberg simplifies the characters in Bridge of Spies with his own brand of emotional shorthand. The patient, unfazed spy Rudolf Abel gives a mostly deadpan performance, letting us know little about him. Spielberg’s shorthand characterization has Abel repeatedly deliver the deadpan catchphrase, “Would it help?”   Spielberg learned this trick from The Great Escape, one his favorite movies. The Steve McQueen character is intensely cinematic, yet is really a collection of simple gags — some cute but unforgettable business with a baseball & glove being the best example. Of such cute running gags is Spielberg’s road to success paved. Donovan and his client form a ‘deep’ relationship based on very little, nothing actually. But we accept that Abel is just a good soldier for the other side. No menace, just an Ordinary Ivan. If Rylance gets an Oscar for this it’ll be pretty amusing. I’m trying to think of award recipients that won based on very small, but memorable, screen appearances.

But Spielberg does this with all of the characters. To make our identification with his star Tom Hanks complete, the moral universe of Bridge of Spies constantly endorses the Jim Donovan character. Donovan is always right, and everyone else is wrong. It seems that Jim is the only person alive with personal integrity. He is the only one to place the law, the spirit of the Constitution, or just plain goodwill ahead of lazy expediency or personal gain. Donovan’s wife and kids jump all over him for defending a commie. Donovan was a prosecutor at Nuremberg, for cripe’s sake, yet his own wife who knows him better than anybody can’t comprehend the simple concept that American law is supposed to offer an honest defense for any person accused, no matter the charge. Donovan might as well be God’s Lonely Man, for his peers at his law office, the prosecutors, and even the judge, consider the trial a lynching as well. Jim keeps Abel from being executed only by suggesting that he may be a valuable asset in future negotiations with the Russians. Donovan goes to the friggin’ Supreme Court with the argument that, if we want to call our competition with the Soviets a Cold War, then we need to treat enemy spy combatants as soldiers, not criminals. The show doesn’t say that the Supreme Court is complicit in the rabid anti-commie crusade, but it comes close.

The FBI men arresting Abel couldn’t be less competent, as they allow the spy to neutralize the secrets he’s stolen, right in front of their noses. But at least they seem to be operating within the law. When it comes time to show us how the U-2 stealth recon plane works, Spielberg couldn’t be happier: it’s a chance to play with an interesting toy. The C.I.A. operatives we see are all intelligent men happily doing dirty jobs, and invested 100% in the Cold Warrior credo. The C.I.A. handlers fully expect the pilots to commit black-capsule hara-kiri rather than be captured alive. Another agent with an open, innocent face, expects Donovan to subvert the law and compromise his ethics in the service of a politician’s definition of national security. The irony should be that this is exactly the charge that was levied against corrupt German judges back at Nuremberg — who can forget Burt Lancaster being hammered with exactly that sin in Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg?  Later on, an agent fights Donovan every step of the way when he insists on keeping the freedom of Frederic Pryor as part of the deal. The agent isn’t given a leg to stand on — the movie presents him as utterly hollow, as amoral as the goons on the other side of the Berlin Wall. If the orders were for Abel to die, this agent would be just as glib: ‘Go ahead, shoot him, we did our best, right?’

My point, and what makes this lack of ambiguity annoying, is that even though I don’t question the basics of what happens in Bridge of Spies, it just seems wrong to make Donovan the only character with any ethics. It’s like everybody else has become a pod person. In a fully fictional thriller this might work okay, but it would still feel like a stacked deck copied from the book ‘Dramatic Conflict for Dummies.’

Did nobody except Donovan exhibit even the slightest hint of decency or human understanding?  When Francis Gary Powers is returned, the military and the spy spooks alike shun him, as if he were a traitor. I should think that even if Powers was given a bad time, there had to be support for him in the ranks — military officers aren’t abandoned that unfairly. But Spielberg is on Powers’ side and against the brass and the press that paint him as a heel. We see Powers being shot down, a sequence that makes him out to be the victim of circumstances beyond his control, like the accused ‘hatch blower’ Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff. The U-2 breaks up before Powers can hit the final self-destruct switch. In a physical feat worthy of a Marvel action hero, he tries to hit the final switch even while clinging to the edge of the cockpit, while the wreckage of the plane spins out of control. We can’t just say ‘he tried.’ Spielberg has to show Powers making a superhuman effort. Those nasty generals and State Department creeps just need a scapegoat, I guess.

There’s no faulting the negotiation scenes in Bridge of Spies, although all that is needed to prevail is a stubborn insurance lawyer who can keep his head and hold his ground. The Russians and even the East Germans fold every time, without much of a fight. At one point a total-jerk East German bureaucrat insults Donovan by barking out a decision and then hustling him out of his office. Donovan counters with a calm, no-bullshit, put-up-or-shut-up ultimatum that gets exactly the response he wants. Good, honest Yankee horse-trading will win over foreign duplicity every time. Too bad Donovan didn’t negotiate with those Vietnamese commies in Paris, ten years later — he’d have had the Viet Cong returning all the MIAs, and Amelia Earhart too. I loved the bit where the Russian contact tries to flummox Donovan with some cheap actors, in the hope that he’s a total dunce, and will hand Rudolf Abel over just for the asking.

But Spielberg can’t resist distilling the truth of the Wall into one hyper-dramatic image. Just so we all know exactly what’s at stake, Donovan witnesses an incident at the Berlin wall from a moving train, magically displayed so that his view from the train window is the perfect master shot. It leaves no doubt as to where the ultimate evil lies. I won’t argue that the scene is an invention, because incidents like that occurred often enough that a random traveler might well have had the same experience. But Spielberg has to make it into a grand ‘teaching moment,’ that ennobles our Donovan as The One Man Who Understands. Toward the end of the movie, as soon as Donovan is shown riding an elevated train through an American city, I guessed EXACTLY that we were going to see a contrasting, benign correlative to the terrible train-wall scene in Berlin.

I agree with the lesson: one city is Free and the other is under the boot of tyranny. But I still feel the condescension. Like a granddad delivering a lesson in a way that a small child can understand, Spielberg closes the storybook and announces that our pie & ice cream is ready. Considering the year, how do we know those kids jumping over the chain link fence aren’t Jets or Sharks, rushing to shed blood in an underclass rumble determined by decadent capitalist oppression? Yes, I am kidding.

For me the film’s subtext of universal corruption mutes the ‘happy ending’ of the successful prisoner swap, and the elevation of James Donovan to hero status — one man alone on the bridge, defying the C.I.A. and the KGB. The ads for Bridge of Spies place Hanks’ image between Russian and American flags, pushing the idea that Donovan is not on either side, when he’s really on ours, of course. I suppose the good news is that, when left in charge, Donovan defies his own handlers and ‘does what’s right.’ But I’m not quite sure why Donovan is calling the shots at the actual swap, and not some high-ranking C.I..A. person, who would just override his authority. As his movie characterizes our government as a bunch of hypocritical jerks, this is something of an anti-government surprise from Spielberg.

What’s the big deal?   Bridge of Spies is by no means a bad movie, and all of the above reads like splitting hairs, even to me. So I should consider my objections to be more discussion than criticism. I just don’t feel comfortable with the way the story is told… I suspect the kinds of subtle misrepresentations that, to me, make a difference. But still, every little thing seems ‘adjusted’ for effect. Poor Donovan can’t just run into some street thugs in East Berlin; he has to be told to expect them. Donovan must walk a dangerous route on foot to get to the Soviet Embassy. Yet when he leaves, the Russian contact man suggests he take a taxi!  And what about those ‘Spielberg Shorthand’ scenes of people on the subway either loving or hating Donovan, depending on which newspaper story is in the paper?  To me that’s storytelling with semaphore flags.

Tom Hanks is charming, and Mark Rylance very effective, if not as lovable as some critics have made him out to be. Having just seen The Wrong Man last week, Amy Ryan appears to have been made up to look just like Vera Miles. The film’s recreations or computer simulations of East Berlin when chilly and snowbound are very handsome indeed; I particularly liked the touch of the old Volvo sports car. To tell the truth, the film’s 141 minutes zip by fairly pleasantly. Bridge of Spies is no less substantial than last year’s Woman in Gold, which also skated by on the graces of a charismatic lead performance. I only wish that Spielberg had something more compelling to say with his movie. This show comes off as ‘Saving Privates Powers and Pryor,’ but without D-Day.


Touchstone’s Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD of Bridge of Spies is an exemplary Blu-ray product, with a snappy encoding that brings out the very specific moods in Janusz Kaminsky’s cinematography. New York in 1957 is sunny and cheerful, with those colorful taxis; it makes one want to go back in time and live there. West Germany has already been rebuilt, with Spartacus and One, Two, Three playing at the theater palace. Without further investigation, that would place the events of the end of the picture in the winter of 1961-62. If the swap were delayed a few months, it have gotten tangled up in the Bay of Pigs crisis. Much of East Germany is a grim ruin. It is nice to finally have dialogue in a movie that says it stayed a wreck because the Russians wanted it that way. Even enlightened spy pictures tend to behave as if Russians and the East Germans act as one coordinated unit, when the truth is that nobody gets along with anybody.

The extras include featurettes about the real historical events and the U-2 spy plane, which will enrich the movie experience. The making-of scenes give us an idea of how much of what we see was real and how much was added in digital post. This material is fine except for a few canned ‘moments on the set.’ To me it looks as if, to get the publicity camera crew on their way, Spielberg made up little bits of dialogue interaction between himself and Hanks. That’s fine. In the old days Spielberg hated having cameras pointed in his direction while he worked. The featurettes are very proud of the visit to the set by German chancellor Angela Merkel — in publicity-speak, that makes the movie ‘historical’ in itself, and not just about history.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bridge of Spies Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English, French Spanish
Supplements: Four Featurettes: A Case of the Cold War; Berlin 1961: Re-Creating The Divide; U-2 Spy Plane and Spy Swap: Looking Back on the Final Act
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 1, 2016

Visit DVD Savant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:

Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson