Bridge of Spies

Released:  2015

Cast:  Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda

Oscar Wins:  Best Supporting Actor (Mark Rylance)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen), Best Original Score (Thomas Newman), Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen, Bernhard Henrich, Rena DeAngelo), Best Sound Mixing (Drew Kunin, Andy Nelson, Gary Rydstrom)

SUMMARY:  In 1957, in Brooklyn, a man named Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is arrested on suspicion of being a Soviet spy.  Abel does not have  lawyer, so the case is given to a New York law firm, who gives it to insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks).  Virtually everybody believes that Abel is guilty, but the government wants to make sure that Abel appears to receive a fair trial, for reputation’s sake.  However, to the surprise of the judge and his partners at the law firm, Donovan puts extreme effort into the case, even trying to get it dismissed on the grounds of an illegal search (the judge refuses).  During this time Donovan is approached by the CIA, who want to know if and what Abel is revealing.  Again, Donovan refuses to compromise his ideals, and will not break attorney-client privilege.  Abel is convicted of espionage, but Donovan convinces the judge not to give him the death penalty by arguing that he might one day be useful in a prisoner exchange.  The judge gives Abel 30 years, but Donovan appeals the case all the way to the Supreme Court (on the grounds of the illegal search).  However, the conviction is eventually upheld.  All of this brings Donovan and his family into the limelight, and they become the target of several hate attacks.  Meanwhile, the CIA has recruited several young men to fly the new U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, in order to take surveillance pictures.  One of these men is Francis Gary Powers.  The men are instructed to destroy the plane and kill themselves if they are shot down or captured, but when Powers is attacked he doesn’t push the destruct button in time.  As a result, pieces of the plane are recovered, and Powers is captured alive.  In a very public trial, he is convicted and sentenced to ten years of confinement, starting with three years in prison.  Back in the U.S., Donovan receives a letter that is supposedly from Abel’s grateful wife, who asks him to contact their lawyer, Wolfgang Vogel.  The CIA learns of this, and believes that this is a hint that the USSR is willing to exchange Abel for Powers.  Since the request did not come through official government channels, the U.S. government does not want a true government official to handle this:  instead, they ask Donovan to go to Berlin and handle the negotiation.

When Donovan arrives in Berlin, the city is in upheaval.  The Soviet Union has just started building the Berlin Wall to separate the city, and people are panicking and trying to flee right and left.  As a result, there has been increased military and police presence through the Wall area, and everybody trying to pass through is closely watched.  An American graduate student named Frederic Pryor is arrested by the East Germans when he tries to cross over; when they learn that he is an economics student, and writing a thesis, they believe that he is secretly a spy for the Americans.  With some government help, Donovan gets the necessary paperwork to travel safely through the area.  He also learns that the Soviets will probably try to make a deal trading Abel for Pryor, instead of Powers; Donovan is instructed to forget about Pryor.  He is first sent to a meeting at the Soviet embassy, where he talks to a KGB officer.  Donovan proposes an exchange of Abel for both Powers and Pryor, but the man tells him that the East Germans have Pryor, not the Soviets.  Donovan then makes contact with Vogel, who actually works for the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) Attorney General (the letter from the wife was a fake).  Vogel offers to trade Pryor for Abel and official recognition from the U.S, which the U.S. has categorically refused.    Donovan continues to communicate with both parties, refusing to forget about Pryor even though he is repeatedly ordered to do so.  The Soviet and German governments both want Abel, but want to exchange him for different men.  Finally, Donovan tells the Germans that they will release Pryor as he exchanges Abel for Powers.  If Pryor is not released, Donovan will call off the whole deal, and force the Germans to explain what happened to the Soviets.  He also implies that if Abel learns that his government doesn’t want him back (implied by the failed exchange), he is likely to start talking about previously undisclosed secrets.  The Germans finally agree to this, and the exchange is set up at Glienicke Bridge.  However, there is a small wrinkle:  Abel and Powers will be exchanged at the Bridge, but Pryor will be released at Checkpoint Charlie.  On the Bridge, Abel and Powers appear with their respective parties, but Donovan refuses to allow the exchange to happen until he receives confirmation that Pryor has arrived at the Checkpoint.  The CIA agent in charge tells Abel to start walking, but Abel sides with Donovan, and refuses to walk until confirmation is received.  Finally, Pryor is dropped off at the Checkpoint, and Abel and Powers cross to their respective sides.  Donovan returns home to the U.S.  The government reveals that Abel and Powers were exchanged, and acknowledges Donovan for his help.

MY TAKE:  I think that most people are probably like me in regards to this moment in history:  they know that Gary Powers was shot down while flying a spy plane over the Soviet Union, and that he was eventually brought home.  However, if they are still like me, they have no idea how that issue was resolved, or that there was actually another person involved (Pryor).  I also think that if they were to watch this film, the last thing they would expect to happen is the development of sympathy for the “villain”, Abel.  I certainly did not expect to sympathize with, and even like, the man, but that’s what happened.  There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Abel was a Soviet spy:  as somebody points out to Donovan, the evidence against him is overwhelming.  Initially, I agreed with Donovan’s partners assessment of the situation:  the man is guilty, but he needs a fair trial for the sake of America’s reputation.  Frankly, I’m one of those people who questions how lawyers can defend people who are obviously guilty (though I’m glad there are people like that).  However, Abel is probably not what you picture when you think of a spy.  The man is older, small, quiet, and spends most of his time painting.  He’s not at all violent, is very polite, and doesn’t get worked up about his situation because he doesn’t see how that would do any good.  This helps the sympathy card, but it is Donovan’s uncompromising ideals that raise the real issues.  As he points out, the search of Abel’s apartment was illegal.  Yes, everybody knows the man is a spy, but by our laws, any evidence uncovered in an illegal search is not admissible in court.  I sided with Donovan on this one, and it really bothered me that the judge clearly disregarded the law (as apparently the Supreme Court did, though the specifics of that argument were not revealed).  These same ideals come into play later, when Donovan learns about Pryor.  The CIA tells him repeatedly to forget about Pryor, as Powers is their only objective.  Donovan cannot bring himself to forget about Pryor, though, and includes him in the negotiations.  Frankly, I thought the Soviets would turn him down flat — two for one just doesn’t add up.  They must have really wanted Abel back, though, because they kept up negotiations.  It’s a good thing that the government asked Donovan to handle the matter, because the CIA guy doesn’t have near the amount of backbone.  Donovan refuses to back down, and eventually gets his way because he realizes that the East German government does not want to answer to the Soviets as to why the exchange failed.  Then, he forces the Soviets to uphold the whole deal by releasing Pryor before he allows the Powers-Abel exchange.  In this moment, all that sympathy for Abel returns.  Abel and Donovan have developed a respect for each other, and something like a friendship as well.  When the CIA guy tries to overrule Donovan, Abel sides with Donovan — even though the CIA guy is releasing Abel.  He respects Donovan enough to help him secure the release of an American.  How can you hate a guy like that, even if he is a spy?  Mark Rylance won the Oscar for this performance.  I was a little surprised that the CIA openly acknowledged Donovan’s part in the exchange immediately — I figured that that would be a big secret for a lot of years, sort of like Argo.  I guess they wanted to take advantage of the good publicity (and granted, Argo was about how we tricked another country).  I thought it was interesting that this film was set in Germany in the years after WWII — and that it was directed by Spielberg and starred Hanks and featured a bridge.  If you listen, at the beginning of the film somebody tells Donovan that he was in the third wave at Normandy.  Spielberg apparently joked that Hanks should have replied that he was in the first wave.  This, of course, is a reference to Saving Private Ryan, in which Hanks plays an officer fighting to save another soldier’s life.  Hanks’s character actually dies in that film — on a bridge in Germany.

RATING:  Very good:  tense without violence.

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