Bridge of Spies is a highly engaging political-adventure based on a true story about a highly covert Spy swap deal between the CIA and KGB during the cold war.
Lawyer James Donovan played by Tom Hanks is tasked to provide legal representation to a Russian Spy captured on American soil. He is eventually solicited by the CIA to travel to Berlin and act on behalf of US interests ‘as a private citizen’ to negotiate an exchange with the Russians. It is of course a delicate time in Berlin as the infamous Berlin wall is swiftly being built separating the former Soviet bloc and the West.
Bridge of Spies also heralds the first time Steven Spielberg has teamed up with the Coen Brothers’ writing team. The nuance and wit of the Coen’s writing and Spielberg’s large and epic visuals work wonders. The effectiveness of this collaboration is probably no better substantiated than in the conversation between lawyer James Donovan and his client Russian spy Rudolf Abel when Donovan puts it to Abel:
Donovan: Quite frankly everyone has an interest of sending you to the electric chair.
Donovan: You don’t seem alarmed.
Abel: Would it help?
I was expecting this movie to be like Lincoln; bogged down in lots of talk and brow raising, but Bridge of Spies becomes an adventure story with a hero-arc. Don’t get me wrong, Lincoln is a very fine movie perhaps bordering on the exceptional due to Daniel Day Lewis’ academy award winning performance as Lincoln, but Bridge of Spies encapsulates more of what Spielberg is capable of as a director.
Mark Rylance as Russian spy Rudolf Abel steels the limelight in every scene he is in with Hanks and deservedly won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his performance here. Even so, Hanks as the stoic Donovan challenged with the most unenviable tasks more than holds his own and carries the movie for the most part. Surprisingly, Bridge of Spies did poorly at the box office, but to my mind it is still an impeccably rendered recreation of these important events of the Cold War.
- Soviet agent Rudolf Ivanovich Abel received coded messages from his KGB handlers that were hidden inside a hollow U.S. nickel. The FBI first became aware of Abel’s activities in 1953, when a Soviet agent mistakenly used one of the hollow nickels to buy a newspaper. The Brooklyn newsboy who got the nickel thought it felt too light. He dropped the nickel on the sidewalk, and it popped open, revealing a piece of microfilm with a coded message inside. FBI cryptologists were unable to crack the code until 1957, when a KGB defector, Reino Häyhänen, gave them the key to deciphering the code, and gave up Rudolph Abel. The “Hollow Nickel Case” was also dramatized in The FBI Story (1959).
- Arnold Spielberg, the father of Steven Spielberg, actually went on a foreign exchange to Russia as an engineer during the cold war, right after Francis Gary Powers was shot down, when there was tremendous fear and hostility between the two nations. Arnold Spielberg recalled seeing Russian citizens line up to look at Powers’ crashed gear and “see what America did.” When they saw the American engineers, they pointed at them and said, “Look what your country is doing to us,” demonstrating the fear and rage the nations felt towards each other.