Americans love to hate lawyers, and I admit to having told a shark joke or two in my time. But many attorneys deserve our praise for their wisdom, their trust, and their integrity. James Donovan was one of them. Not only did he risk his own reputation to defend a despised Soviet spy, but he successfully negotiated the exchange of that spy for one of our own spies five years later, and then went on to negotiate the release of thousands of prisoners in Cuba after the Bay of Pigs disaster, exchanging them for food and medicine that would benefit the Cuban people rather than for money that would line Castro’s pockets. “Bridge of Spies” tells the story of his most famous exchange: convicted spy Rudolf Abel, a Soviet intelligence officer, for downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers.
The film opens on Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), quietly painting a self-portrait in his small Brooklyn apartment. Abel might be a dangerous Soviet spy, but in appearance he is a sad sack who suffers from post-nasal drip. His mouth seems permanently downturned in a frown, and he walks with a determined but plodding shuffle. He speaks only when absolutely necessary, and not at all for the first 15 minutes of the film, as we follow him to an information “drop.” Even when American agents storm through his door, he remains unruffled and quietly cleans his paint palette. Later, when Donovan observes, “You don’t seem worried,” Abel shrugs pragmatically, “Would it help?”
This sad sack demeanor masks the skillful, cunning nature of the spy who lurks inside. His apparent disinterest allows him to move through crowds unnoticed, but he is always guarded, as one would expect of a top Soviet agent to be. He reminds me of a CIA agent I knew years ago, a man who broke into foreign embassies, opened safes, copied documents, and put everything back again, neat as a pin. If you saw this man, you would think he was an Idaho potato farmer. And yet, he was one of America’s most decorated espionage agents (although all of his awards and decorations were locked away in top secret safes inside the Agency until his retirement).
Before continuing this review, I have to say a word about Rylance, whom many consider the most gifted stage actor today. I am one of them. Liberty readers may recognize him from the TV miniseries Wolf Hall, where he plays Thomas Cromwell. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and a performer with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Rylance was the founding artistic director of the New Globe Theater and has eclipsed even Kenneth Branagh as the premier Shakespearean actor of our time. But he is also a master of comedy and modern plays. Over the last decade or so he has established a pattern of creating a role for the West End in London and then bringing it to Broadway for the following year. I have seen all those plays, some more than once. He is a brilliant stage actor.
But acting for the stage is different from acting for the screen. On stage, the actor is smaller than the audience; he has to “play large” in order to fill the theater and reach the balcony. Emotions are conveyed with exaggeration and with the whole body, not just the face or the eyes. By contrast, a movie screen is maybe 30 feet high and 70 feet wide. Every twitch of the finger and blink of the eye is magnified, so acting has to be subtle and nuanced. Rylance has not performed in many films, but not to worry. He makes the transition to screen brilliantly.
Several attorneys refuse to defend Abel, worried about how it might affect their reputations and their families’ safety. But Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) accepts the case. He believes that everyone in America, not just citizens, deserves the same protections under the constitution, and that “American justice is on trial,” with the whole world watching to see how this foreign spy will be treated. Donovan’s nobility reminds me of Atticus Finch, defending the African American Tom Robinson despite his community’s outrage and threats. “What makes us Americans?” Donovan asks Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd) rhetorically, when Hoffman expects Donovan to violate client-attorney privilege and tell the CIA what he knows. “It’s the rule book—the constitution. That’s what makes us Americans.” He defends Abel all the way to the Supreme Court. Indeed, it is because of the ruling in Abel’s case that the US now maintains a prison on Cuban soil—in order to avoid giving “enemy combatants” those same rights to representation and a speedy trial.
To my mind, Donovan’s ethics deserve some scrutiny, however. For example, when a young boy asks him why he is defending the spy, he responds, “Because it’s my job,” as though that’s reason enough. But didn’t Nazi soldiers give the same excuse? Donovan also expresses admiration for Abel’s work ethic and steadfastness in not revealing any secrets, calling him “honorable.” And maybe he is. Such fortitude does reveal a strong character. But it also reduces spying to the level of a football game: Just do your job, and do it with integrity, and we can all go home admiring one another. But defending a country, an ideology, and a way of life is not the same as defending a goal line, and an enemy is not the same as an opponent.
Meanwhile, the Americans have spies of their own, and they are flying over Russia, taking pictures from 70,000 feet above the earth, using secretly developed camera equipment and a top-secret new plane—the U2. The pilots are told that if they are attacked they must detonate the plane and kill themselves rather than allow the Russians to have the information. Nevertheless, Pilot Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) manages to get himself captured, and Donovan is asked to broker a deal to get him home. (For dramatic effect the film gives the impression that these events take place at the same time, but they were actually five years apart.) Donovan’s dogged determination to negotiate the deal so that everyone comes out alive fills the remainder of the film.
Despite our knowing the outcome in advance, the tension of the film is relentless, particularly in several exterior scenes set in East Berlin. The Wall is brand new and the German people are desperate to escape. Hungry young Germans surround Donovan like a pack of wolves, while others climb fences or drop from windows into the West in their eagerness to escape. These scenes belie the stance of moral equivalency that Donovan seems to adopt. All things are decidedly not equal between the two super powers, no matter how honorably Abel conducts himself in maintaining his oath of secrecy.
Another powerful scene occurs as Abel’s trial begins, with a montage that leads from the bailiff’s “All rise” to school children rising to recite the pledge of allegiance to the rising of a mushroom cloud in a schoolroom documentary about the atomic bomb. Spielberg has always been an artist, but in this film he surpasses himself. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who also worked with Spielberg in the award-winning WWII films Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, deserves credit for much of the film’s success.
This is the first film Spielberg has made without John Williams providing the soundtrack since The Color Purple in 1985, and while I’m a fan of Williams’ distinctive style, I think Thomas Newman’s darker tones are more appropriate to this film’s story.
“Bridge of Spies” is the first of the serious Oscar contenders to be released this year. Hang onto your popcorn—I think it’s going to be a great season.
“Bridge of Spies,” directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks, Fox 2000, Reliant, 2015. 141 minutes.