Like a bridge over troubled waters, there are spies like us.
Indeed. This is a movie about walls and bridges. Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to James Donovan (Tom Hanks) a tax lawyer in 1957. He’s been recruited to defend a suspected Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel. Donovan takes this very seriously – he was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, after all. However, nobody around him thinks the spy deserves a trial – they’ve already convicted him in their minds. Donovan is also getting the evil eye from everyone in town, even to the point of death threats and shooting out his windows.
As expected, Donovan loses the case and Abel is convicted. However, Donovan succeeds in sparing Abel from the death penalty. He does this by persuading the judge that, hypothetically, keeping Abel alive allows for the possibility that a future hostage exchange could take place should the Soviets ever capture an American spy. As it turns out, Donovan is prescient.
Scott, you’d expect a movie by Steven Spielberg starring Tom Hanks would be excellent, and Bridge of Spies doesn’t disappoint. Every character in this film is acted out with a sort of precision that you don’t see every day. The spy, Abel, is a cool character. He seems worn out, but meticulous in his behavior and attention to his spy craft. Hanks delivers a very Jimmy Stewart sort of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” performance. He is truly cinema’s leading, leading man. From both a technical and storytelling point of view, there are no flaws with this film.
Absolutely right, Gregger. This movie shines in every way that a movie can shine. First and foremost, Donovan is a hero with moral courage. His character taps into an important hero archetype that describes a man who does the right thing even when it is very unpopular. Because he defends a suspect who is universally hated, Donovan receives menacing glares on the subway. His home is the target of gunfire, and his family pressures him to rethink his decision. Despite the risks and the danger, Donovan does what needs to be done.
Bridge of Spies features two separate hero’s journeys. The first journey is the unpopular legal defense of the Soviet spy. The second journey takes place later in East Germany after Donovan is assigned the task of negotiating the release of American soldier Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). As in the initial journey, Donovan once again takes on the unpopular fight. Under pressure from the CIA to focus only on Powers, Donovan insists on making sure that a 25-year-old American hostage is also released during the prisoner exchange. Once again, our hero does the right thing regardless of the cost to himself.
I’m glad you mentioned the double-hero’s-journey, Scott. While it did keep true to the events of the time, it slowed the movie down. There were two ordinary worlds, and two special worlds to become acclimated to. I can’t think of a fix (and I would never argue with the master, Spielberg). Still the characterizations and suspense pull this film along to it’s thrilling conclusion.
The supporting characters were superb. Of course we already mentioned Rudolf Abel, played exceedingly low-key by Mark Rylance. (My favorite line is when Donovan asks Abel: “Aren’t you worried?” and he replies, “Would it help?”). This is a combination anti-hero and villain character. Certainly not a villain as he is not trying to prevent Donovan from doing his job, but he’s a bad guy; a particularly easy-going bad guy. As such, he’s not so much even an anti-hero as much as a prop – he’s Donovan’s main goal (to give Abel a fair trial).
But it is the system represented by Judge Byers who is the villain in the first half of the film. Byers wants to get the trial over with and sentence Abel to death as soon as possible. He’s already passed his judgement. Donovan even says out loud that his role in this case is to prove that America does not have kangaroo courts. It is Byers who is attempting to thwart Donovan’s main goal. When the jury passes down a guilty verdict, Byers is in the position to sentence Abel to death. But Donovan convinces Byers that Abel may be a bargaining chip in the event an American spy is captured by the Russians. So, while Donovan loses the battle, he wins the war.
The fact that we have two hero’s journeys underscores this film’s mission of showcasing the depth of Donovan’s heroic integrity. A single hero’s journey isn’t enough for him. He’s a person who has no doubt been on many hero journeys, with Bridge of Spies giving us a glimpse of only two of them. This movie needed two interlinked hero’s journeys, if only to show that Donovan’s deft skill in sparing Abel’s life in the first journey allowed for the opportunity for him to spare the lives of two other men in the second.
I agree that the supporting cast more than holds its own in this film. Abel is a likeable Soviet villain, and some of the Americans are less than likeable in their dogmatic views and behaviors. You could argue that we have both institutional heroes and institutional villains, with Donovan serving as the face of the “West” and several characters serving as the various faces of the Soviet eastern bloc. These characters include Abel and several of the politicians that Donovan negotiates with to win the release of the two hostages.
Bridge of Spies is a wonderful work of art created by two masters of their craft. Spielberg directs this film in a way that shows off both the heroism of Donovan, and also the corrupt natures of the Soviet and American governments, alike. Hanks delivers again as the most likable guy in Hollywood. Together, the two paint a picture of a man of courage – or as Able calls him – “the standing man.” I can’t think of anything that could have made this film better. I award Bridge of Spies 5 out of 5 Reels.
Tom Hanks is great as the confident yet modest insurance lawyer called to the adventure of defending a villain. Donovan steps up to the challenge and delivers. He has no mentor in his journey, but he draws upon the values laid down by the Constitution. Just as the hero of the western lives by the code of the West, Donovan lives by the ideals set down by the founding fathers. There is also no “missing inner quality” to overcome. While Donovan is modest about his abilities, he is not unconfident. As you point out, Scott, it took two events in Donovan’s life to expose the depth of his character. In the epilog to the film, we’re informed that he also negotiated the release of 1,163 Bay of Pigs prisoners. It’s clear from this film that the heroic element of Donovan is the fact that he not only stands on his principles, but also goes above and beyond what is required. I’d like to give Donovan full honors, but his story lacks certain elements of the hero’s journey. So, I award Donovan 4 out of 5 Heroes.
The supporting cast is excellent. Spielberg suffers no fools, and every supporting character in this story delivers. We’ve already talked about the villainous judge, and the quiet spy. But there was also the (apparently) naive pilot shot down over Russia (Francis Gary Powers), the supportive but worried wife and children, the corrupt CIA officials, the corrupt and devious KGB officials, the youthful college student, and the young people shot down while trying to jump the Berlin wall. All of these characters represent some element of the story, nothing is wasted. I give the supporting cast 5 out of 5 Cast points.
I agree, Greg, that Bridge of Spies is a winner. When you combine a fabulous screenplay with arguably the best male actor of our times (Tom Hanks), you are destined to produce something magical. Having grown up in Los Angeles where I listened to Francis Gary Powers broadcast traffic conditions from his helicopter, I knew his story. But what I didn’t know was the backstory involving the heroic James Donovan working behind the scenes to do the right thing, over and over again, at great risk to himself. I also award this film 5 Reels out of 5.
The dual hero journey is deftly linked and reinforces Donovan’s intelligence, character, and integrity. Like you, Greg, I note the absence of a transformation and a mentor figure who is there to help him transform. In a sense, Donovan is a superhero who is supremely virtuous from start to finish. It’s not a bad hero’s journey, just not the classic journey as described by Joseph Campbell. I’ll give Donovan’s heroism 3 Heroes out of 5.
The supporting characters, as you point out, are excellent and deserve credit for either assisting Donovan on his journey or for throwing obstacles in his way. I particularly enjoyed Mark Rylance’s wry humor and overall performance as the captured spy who had no chance of acquittal. Overall, these supporting characters deserve a rating of 4 out of 5.