My Rating: 8 out of 10
I was lucky to be able to see Bridge of Spies before the Academy Awards tonight since I missed the opportunity to see it in theaters and wanted to watch as many of the best picture nominees as possible before the ceremony. Luckily, the local library was running a free screening of the film a couple nights ago and I was finally able to see it. Going into the movie, I saw assumed it would either be an excellent film that I would want to watch again and again or one that was too slow and boring to really grab me. In the end, Bridge of Spies was somewhere in the middle, but leaning close enough to being a great film that I will definitely pick it up on DVD for my collection when I get a chance.
The story of Bridge of Spies takes place in the 1960s, but has a lot to say about the times we are living in today. The focus of the film is James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), who is an insurance lawyer that is selected to represent the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) in attempt to give the pretense that the American justice system is fair even to enemy combatants. However, after speaking with Abel and getting to know him on a more personal level, Donovan comes to respect the man in a way and takes his job of defending him and preventing his execution very seriously. Later, when a CIA pilot named Gary Powers and a student named Frederic Pryor fall into enemy hands, Donovan is asked by the government to negotiate a prisoner exchange between the US, the USSR, and the pseudo-government of East Germany.
On of the things that I liked most about Bridge of Spies is the way in which it is much more “feel good” than many other Oscar nominated films. Not to say that it is lighthearted or a family film, but you can tell that it is a Spielberg creation in the way it makes you feel. There are some lines that are dramatic and emotional in a way that only lines from a certain kind of film can be, but I didn’t mind these as much as some people that I know would. Like Unbroken, you could tell that Bridge of Spies might not end 100% happily, but that it wasn’t going to finish in some bleak or depressing way. Donovan is a good man that is easy to look up and is ideal in a lot of way, not because he is perfect, but because he genuinely sees people as equals to him. Lawyers are usually seen as underhanded liars scheming to cheat the system, but Donovan is a man that truly finds importance in his job. He is the kind of lawyer and negotiator that all legal professionals should seek to emulate.
This leads into one of the major theme that Bridge of Spies looks at is the idea of defining people based on who they are and not where they are from or what their profession is. In the same way Donovan breaks the public notion of the scummy lawyer, Abel breaks the public notion of an evil Soviet spy. He is in America to spy for his country (although this is never said outright), but he isn’t the type of guy that wishes ill-will on the American public as shown through his relationship with Donovan. This isn’t to say that the two men are perfect. For example, Donovan can be seen at the very beginning of the film trying to lessen a claim for a automotive accident and using a very lawyerly approach that could be seen as a bit heartless. And while Abel isn’t a bad guy who dreams of nuking American cities, he is a spy and is obviously aware of the ramifications of his career. Donovan has a powerful line with regards to this idea, where he says that Abel isn’t a traitor since he is a Russian doing the job he was sent to do. Where the public sees someone that is evil based on the fact that he is both Russian and a spy, Donovan sees a man that is loyal to a cause he believes in.
This extends into the way the film connects with the political situation of today. During the Red Scare there was social panic about spies and nuclear weapons, whereas today there is a scare about terrorism. As Russians were seen as dangerous and untrustworthy in those days, Muslims are seen as potential terrorists today. Instead of looking at each individual person as someone that matters for who they are, most people both in the 1960s and today will judge someone based on their profession or country of origin without asking a single question about their beliefs and values. And much like today, the governments of both countries were trying to subvert the rules in order to get what they wanted.
In one scene that can be seen in the trailer, Donovan is talking with a CIA who wants him to divulge information that Abel may have provided him when he represented Abel in court. The agent says that there is not rule book when it comes to national security, but Donovan rebuffs him by saying the only thing that makes someone an American is their adherence to the rule book called the Constitution. This was such a powerful moment and should really resonate with people today. America isn’t a place defined by ethnicity as it was founded by immigrants from all over the world, America is a set of values written in the Constitution that give people hope. If we take away those values or try to “ignore the rules”, the America ceases to exist.
While the film is definitely a bit more pro-America than pro-Soviet, there is no real bad guy. Neither side is looked at as right or wrong in the scheme of things. The focus is less on the people in government than the people employed by the two governments and effected by the decisions and paranoia of their respective countries. The higher-ups in both the Soviet government and the US government are more heartless and mission driven than the people who actually make the negotiations like Donovan and Schischkin (played by Mikhail Gorevoy). I must admit that I was unaware that East Germany had a semi-autonomous government and wanted to be viewed as such by the rest of the world instead of just a puppet of the Soviet government. However, I think the filmmakers did a good job of explaining this, just as they did a great job of balancing the many characters without making the story hard to follow like Spotlight.
As a final note, it seemed as though there were some scenes that might have been cut for time, but the remnants of these scenes remained for whatever reason. For example, there seemed to have been some kind of romance between Donovan’s daughter and his legal assistant, but this plot line was cut off pretty early in the film. I definitely understand why the choice was made, but I was confused as to why any of that storyline was left intact in the final cut. Overall, I recommend seeing Bridge of Spies for the impeccable acting, the well crafted storyline, the beautiful cinematography, and the timely message it provides. The film may not be as exciting as Zero Dark Thirty or Unbroken, but it doesn’t disappoint.