Steven Spielberg returns to his continuing series of history-based films (including Schindler’s List, Amistad, Munich and Lincoln), turning his attention this time to the Cold War, and the result is a masterwork. Teaming with Tom Hanks for a fourth collaboration (after Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me if You Can and The Terminal), Spielberg tells the little-known story of James B. Donovan, a Brooklyn attorney who finds himself involved in international intrigue in a Cold War story of conscience and compromise.
Though Bridge of Spies concerns itself with spies and competing intelligence agencies, it bears no resemblance to the Bourne and Bond films, and frankly, it’s so nice to see a spy movie about actual spying, with no melodramatic fistfights or gunplay, no sneering villains and no countdown clock to Armageddon. This is a mature and intelligent film about a good man trying to act according to his conscience in a world where that’s unappreciated.
1. What’s it about?
In 1957, James Donovan is appointed as defense attorney for accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel; he takes the assignment seriously and argues for his client’s Constitutional rights, much to the displeasure of everyone involved in the case, including the judge, his family and the public. Later, Donovan is enlisted to negotiate a prisoner exchange in which Abel is to be returned to Moscow in trade for downed U2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. While handling the tense negotiations, he decides to attempt to also rescue arrested American student Frederick Pryor over the objections of his CIA handlers.
2. Will I like it?
Do you like intelligent movies in which ordinary people deal with extraordinary circumstances? Do you like it when these ordinary people deal with extraordinary circumstances by using reason, diplomacy, negotiation and eloquence? Do you like movies that take place in grey areas where the “good guys” want to justify doing bad things and the “bad guys” don’t look much different from the “good guys”? This is a movie for grown-ups, and it’s the kind of film that Spielberg is becoming the go-to guy for.
3. Will my kids like it?
Older kids who are interested in history and social studies, who follow politics and want to understand how the world operates, will like it very much. Children who can get caught up in quiet human drama and understand the implications and ramifications of political conflict, and can understand why ordinary citizens might hate a lawyer for doing his job and defending a spy, and understand why those people might violently attack the man’s home and family, who can understand what the “Red Scare” was all about, should enjoy Bridge of Spies. Younger kids will probably have no idea what’s going on. I’d say it’s good for kids 12 and up, especially if you want them to draw the obvious parallels between the fear and hostility of today and that of 50 years ago. “The more things change….”
4. When is a good time for a bathroom break?
You’re not going to need one, since older kids can hold it for the length of the movie, and if they can’t, they can go by themselves.
5. Is the rating appropriate?
It’s rated PG-13 for “some violence and brief strong language,” but both are pretty trivial here. It’s really PG-13 simply because it’s about conflicts and problems that little children simply don’t understand; “why wouldn’t the good guys want to rescue two innocent people? And if they can only save one, why go for the one who’s less innocent and leave the one who was wrongly arrested to rot in prison?”
6. Do I need to have read the book to enjoy it?
There are several books on the subject, including Jim Donovan’s autobiographical account, but the screenplay (by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen) isn’t explicitly based on any of them. Certainly if you’re interested in the fascinating story of how Rudolf Abel was captured by the FBI (hint: it all comes down to one staggeringly incompetent and self-serving KGB man who isn’t even mentioned in the film), or want to know more about Francis Gary Powers, there is plenty of reading material to choose from, and since the film doesn’t go into any of these events at all, it’s well worth checking out.
7. Do I need to have seen the previous movie(s) in the series to enjoy it?
If by “the series” you mean Steven Spielberg’s previous movies about important historic events, no, you don’t need to have seen them. But you really ought to, because there is a nice arc of growth in his work; he has learned to trust the audience to get it, and his reliance on manipulative techniques has been supplanted by solid directing. He continues to be one of the best directors working, and one of the very few high-profile ones who can alternate between crowd-pleasing popcorn-muncher spectacles and thoughtful examinations of obscure people quietly making history.
8. How are the special effects?
Bridge of Spies is one of those films where the VFX people do their best work, because when they do it right, you never know they were there. Recreating the look of bombed-out post-WWII East Berlin and the fortifications around the then-under-construction Wall had to have involved a lot of green-screen and CGI. The major action sequence, in which Powers’ U2 plane is shot down over Russia, is very well done and as exciting as it should be.
9. How’s the music?
For the first time in 30 years, a Spielberg film does not have a soundtrack by John Williams; Williams was being treated for a medical condition at the time, so the job fell to Thomas Newman. While lacking Williams’ fondness for attaching distinctive themes to particular characters and punching up the emotion of every scene (watch the shark scenes from Jaws with the sound off and you’ll see how much he adds to the proceedings), Newman’s score is appropriate, understated most of the time, and dramatic when warranted. I don’t know that a lot of people are going to run out and buy the album, but it does what it’s supposed to do, which is help tell the story.
10. Do I need to stay to the end of the credits?
Maybe not to the end, but you’re going to want to stay for the listing of the cast at least. In a nice bit of immersive theater, the film has no opening credits to speak of; once we get past the several production company logos (Amblin, Dreamworks, Fox, Participant Media, Reliance Entertainment, etc.), There is only a simple black title card with white text before we’re into the story. Since none of the players except Hanks are household names, you may find yourself wondering where you saw the guy playing Abel (Mark Rylance) or the woman who plays Mrs. Donovan (Amy Ryan). Of course, then you’ll have to pop over to IMDB in order to place them.