Bridge of Spies (2015)

Directed by Steven Spielberg.

Contains spoilers.

Steven Spielberg is one of the most well-respected and prolific filmmakers in Hollywood, with an exhaustive resume as a producer, writer, and director. He was influential in the beginning, steadfast in the middle, and with Bridge of Spies maintains a strong presence as he comes to the end of his 5th decade as a filmmaker.

In their tenth paring, Tom Hanks stars as James Donovan, a lawyer with a penchant for insurance settlements. Donovan is asked by his partners at the law firm to defend Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a suspected Soviet spy who's been arrested by the FBI, as a public showing of American resolution for fair trials and fair justice. Intent on doing his job to the best of his ability, Donovan actually tries his best, much to the chagrin of the powers that be. Abel is tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison as Donovan continues doing his job to the best of his ability. As Donovan continues working for his client, a US Air Force pilot, Francis Powers (Austin Stowell), prepares for a photographying flight over the USSR in the newly developed U-2 spy plane. On Powers' first flight he's shot down by anti-air missiles in Soviet territory at the same time that East Berlin erects a protective wall to maintain its sovereignty and American student Frederic Pryor is arrested by East Berlin police. With increased tension between the US and USSR, Donovan is brought to West Berlin by the CIA to help negotiate an exchange: Abel for Powers. What should be a simple negotiation turns difficult as Donovan is unwilling to give up on Pryor and East Berlin officials try to turn the exchange into leverage to have the state recognized as the German Democratic Republic, a sovereign nation.

Historically the story feels accurate, insofar as the factual events. But at the same time there isn't much of a sense of scale or time, with the events feeling like they occur in a month as opposed to the reality of nearly five years. But that's a small hiccup in an otherwise well-written movie. The events come across with a strong sense of tension and awareness, with characters that provide incredible perspective and the mood eternally foreboding and natural comic relief that is both topical and fun (pretty good for a political thriller). 


The story winds up by introducing us to both Abel and Donovan, who seem almost to be different sides of the same story. Spielberg shows us how each of them are smart and convincing, perfect for each of their positions with deep understanding of the meaning of said positions. As they start to navigate the tricky waters of the Cold War, we start to see their true merit, smart and controlled. Donovan becomes the lens with which we can see the duality of the US and USSR as they negotiate, highlighting the differences in ideals and, at the same time, the massive similarities in priority.

As the tension mounts, Janusz Kamiński holds us in the era with skillfully molded photography. The contrasts are the essence here, with Kamiński's photography [in addition to Spielberg's penchant for heightened historical production values] holding us in the Cold War-era with a narrow field of light; the lights are blown out and the shadows are blanketed. Any CG is immersive, along with the detailed sets. The production is inspiring.

Tom Hanks turns in yet another knockout performance. The entire cast is stellar despite a stoic portrayals here and there, such as Mark Rylance's Abel. But regardless, the cast's chemistry is fantastic and helps get across the then-current dynamics and realistic dialogue in a wholly believable way, especially the small bits of situational comic relief peppered through the movie.

The Cold War, like many times through history, is a fascinating era. Spielberg aptly captures the idealistic and opinionated problems that ran rampant at the time, as well as the humanitarian victories, but shades them with extra doses of sentimentality. There's little mystery here; at one point, Abel literally explains to Donovan [and the audience] how to tell whether or not he's likely to be shot following the exchange; there are no context clues left to the audience because everything's explained. The thrill is primarily atmospheric and that isn't a bad thing, but the strength of Hanks' Donovan becoming a compass for predictability. It's almost a movie about watching dominos fall, because everything turns out perfectly.

But that introspective shot at the end, with Donovan on the subway overlooking Brooklyn neighborhoods as he sees something that fully mirrors a scene from earlier, when he rode the train across the border in Berlin... that shot is artless retrospection at it's finest. But I understand the intent.


TL;DR: I actually loved this movie. It's always a good time for a historical, dramatic thriller from Spielberg. And Tom Hanks in the mix just makes it all the better. There are a few issues here and there but overall it's an intriguing narrative of true events from what is possibly the most tumultuous time in recent memory. There isn't so much spy work going on (Bridge of Spies ends up being more of a political thriller), but to see the culture and society brought to life is amazing.

  • Acting – 18 / 20
  • Story – 17 / 20
  • Cinematography – 17 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 6 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 7 / 10
  • Drama/Thriller – 6 / 10
  • Other – 5 / 10

Grade C = 76 / 100