Bridge of Spies (4/10)
by Tony Medley
Runtime 140 minutes.
OK for children.
Spielberg casts a sympathetic eye on a KGB soviet spy (which he had been
since 1927), Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance, who gives a bravura
performance, the main reason for seeing this movie, equaling his work as
Thomas Cromwell in the TV miniseries Wolf Hall), who was working
to transmit U.S. military secrets to the most ruthless regime the world
has ever seen, Soviet Russia. But according to Spielberg (and writers
Mark Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen), he was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered
guy more interested in painting than spying, just a guy working for his
country. Well, Hitler and Dr. Mengele were also just guys working for
But Spielberg goes even further. He paints his hero, Jim Donovan (Tom
Hanks), as an “insurance lawyer” who is appointed to defend Abel after
Abel is arrested and put on trial for espionage. Spielberg presents
Donovan as a guy who doesn’t know anything about spy trials. What
Spielberg doesn’t tell you is that Donovan was a lot more than an
“insurance lawyer.” From 1943 to 1945 he was General Counsel at the
Office of Strategic Services. In 1945 he became assistant to Justice
Robert H. Jackson at the Nurenberg trials in Germany. Donovan was the
presenter of visual evidence at the trial. He was also an advisor for
the documentary feature The Nazi Plan. So he was hardly the
novice Spielberg and Hanks paint him to be.
Spielberg is so at pains to draw a moral equivalence between spies of
our enemies and our spies that he goes overboard to paint Abel
sympathetically. Spielberg doesn’t let on that Abel arrived in the U. S.
in 1948 and returned to the Soviet Union in 1955 for “rest and
recreation,” and that upon his return to America he complained bitterly
to the KGB that his assistant, Reino Häyhänen (not shown in the movie or
even mentioned), be recalled to Moscow (for probable execution) because
he wasn’t an effective spy. It was when Häyhänen discovered that the KGB
was going to recall him, and probably execute him, that Häyhänen asked
for asylum at the U.S. embassy in Paris and eventually turned Abel in to
of the more disconcerting parts of this film is that it not so subtly
stands as a metaphor attacking U.S. actions in the Iraq wars, showing,
for instance, captured U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell)
being tortured by water.
It seems to be Spielberg’s point of view that even though one is an
enemy and working for the destruction of our way of life, he’s just
another guy working for the good of his country and its way of life, so
who are we to condemn, even though that way of life is a brutal
Equally disturbing is its depiction of Rudolph’s trial as equivalent to
Soviet show trials by representing Judge Mortimer Byers (Dakin Matthews)
as thoroughly corrupt in that he is shown to have made up his mind
before the trial starts, going so far as to instruct Donovan in a
pre-trial meeting in Chambers not to make a big deal out of his defense.
So Spielberg makes it clear that going through with the trial in his
film was little more than a charade, and that there’s little difference
between justice in U.S. courts than in a Nazi court or a Soviet court.
The pace of the first
hour is so slow it fits in with Spielberg’s work over the past several
decades during which he has completely lost touch with pace and a
realistic time to tell a story. It picks up a little when Donovan goes
to East Germany to negotiate for the release of Powers, but it still
drags on interminably, burdened by the insertion of a contrived device
of Donovan suffering from a cold the entire time he was in Germany.
This would be a good
tale if Spielberg had just told the story straight up in 90 minutes
without trying to influence the audience to his point of view. All in
all, this is a film of which the Hollywood Ten would be proud. But even
they would need some NoDoz.