(I originally wrote a review of "Bridge of Spies" some time ago, on another website, when the movie was first in cinemas. The film has since had some success at the Oscars and it has now been released on DVD. Accordingly, with a bit of re-writing and some re-appraisal, I feel the time is ripe to re-publish here my thoughts on that film.)
Bridge of Spies
The British writer Rudyard Kipling popularised the term "the great game" at the turn of the 20th century, to describe the espionage and cloak-and-dagger jockeying for position that goes on amongst the great powers. The phrase is still used today. Themes of spying and great power monkey business are still highly popular with writers and moviemakers, from the entertaining, if highly unrealistic, froth and bubble of James Bond to the more sober, coldly realistic stories of writers such as John Le Carre.
Stephen Spielberg's movie, "Bridge of Spies" definitely belongs to the latter category. It adapts a true spy story straight out of the Cold War. In 1957, Rudolf Abel was convicted in the US of spying for the Russians. His American defence lawyer was James Donovan, who took on the job when others wouldn't. Abel was sentenced to a long prison stretch, but at least escaped the death penalty. In May 1960, an American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was shot down over Russia while flying a high-altitude U-2 spyplane for the CIA and photographing strategic sites in what was then the Soviet Union. He survived, was put on trial in Russia for espionage, convicted and imprisoned. Then, in 1961, an American university student, Frederic Pryor, was arrested in East Germany and accused of spying. Unlike Powers, Pryor was quite innocent. Donovan (Abel's defence lawyer) was asked to unofficially act on America's behalf and negotiate with the Russians and East Germans. The goal: to arrange a swap of Rudolf Abel for Powers and Pryor.
With Spielberg directing, from a script co-written by, amongst others, Joel and Ethan Coen, James Donovan is played by Tom Hanks, Rudolf Abel is played by Mark Rylance (who actually looks not unlike the real Abel), Powers is played by Austin Stowell, while Pryor is played by Will Rogers. It's a great story, all the more so for being true, with an excellent director, a good cast, and proven script writers – yet I feel the movie didn't quite come off as well as it might have.
One reason is the film's length. It's about 2 1/2 hours long, which is too much. Another reason: I thought its pacing was a bit on the slow side. The story moves along, almost sedately, from one stage to the next, making sure each stage is thoroughly explained to the audience before moving on. I thought this killed off some of the drama and tension which should have attached to this rattling, true-life espionage story. A third reason was the peculiar tint – at least in the version I saw – in which the (supposedly) colour film was shot: a dreary grey-blue tint made everything seem clothed in an eternal murk. Maybe it was meant to convey the sinister dreariness of Soviet-era East Berlin, or make the wintry scenes colder looking. It just made the film's slow pace more noticeable.
The acting is pretty good. Hanks is convincing in the first half of the film as Donovan the defence lawyer, trying his legal best for his reviled client. In the second half, Hanks plays Donovan, the middle-man trying to cut a deal with the Communist heavies, as more restrained, less sure, of his role as negotiator. The best acting performance in the movie comes from Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel; Rylance beautifully portrays a lugubrious, almost resigned Abel who has a good line in gallows humour and gets on well with Donovan. Rylance got a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar at the 2016 Academy Awards for this role, and it's well-deserved.
Of course, Hollywood always alters history to suit its theatrical purposes. So too here. Frederic Pryor, the only one of the four main characters still alive at time of writing, said in an interview that the film changed significant aspects of his real story. One aspect Hollywood left out – whose inclusion might have hyped up the film's drama some more – was the severe diplomatic consequence of Powers' downing over the Soviet Union. In May 1960, a summit conference was planned in Paris between American President Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev. Tensions between the two superpowers were very high. Then the Powers incident happened, the Russians hit the roof, and the conference collapsed.
These days, one problem with spy movies is that we are all used to the "James Bond" variety: explosions, car chases, sexy women, fantastic special effects, death-defying stunts, and so forth. In real life, espionage is not like this. It is more often about undistinguished-looking men (and sometimes women) in grey suits meeting with others in parks, dead-letter drops, seedy hotel rooms, and exchanging nondescript packages. 90% of espionage is dull, almost boring (though sometimes deadly) routine. In this respect, "Bridge of Spies" is far truer to the real-life world of spies than its "James Bond" counterparts. Despite this, I still think the film could have been given a sharper, crisper edge. I have in mind Roger Donaldson's film from 2000, "Thirteen Days", Hollywood's re-creation of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when the world trembled on the brink of nuclear war. That was a taut, edge-of-your-seat, quite frightening Cold War thriller. "Bridge of Spies" should have been like this, but perhaps falls a little short of the mark.
I have something of a vested interest in the subject-matter of this Spielberg movie; I was still at school when the Gary Powers incident happened. I well remember the excitement of the media's coverage of the event. Would it trigger World War Three? Would the Russians shoot Gary Powers? What would happen to the Paris conference? It was breathless, what-will-happen-next? stuff back then and we all listened to our radios tensely awaiting further developments. Rather like what we all felt and did only two years later, when the Cuban missile crisis erupted.
Still, despite its faults, this Spielberg movie re-creates a fascinating true story from a dangerous period of the Cold War. The story deserves to be told and modern generations will learn some spellbinding history. In that sense, the movie is definitely worth seeing. It might not be Spielberg's greatest movie to date, but it's certainly an important one and continues his recent and admirable tradition of making interesting films from real-life stories.
Gilbert's star rating (out of five): * * * *