The film opens with the FBI following and arresting Rudolf Abel, a sovjet spy in the late fifties, at the height of the Cold War. Tom Hanks plays James B. Donovan a lawyer specialised in insurance cases who’s asked to defend Abel, a case nobody really wants to handle and which does not gain him any popularity.
The ensuing trial is more of a show trial, the outcome is known in advance, Abel is to be found guilty. Donovan is able to prevent Abel to go to the electric chair via some extra-legal arguments. One day the US may be able to use him to exhange him versus an American spy caught by the Ruskies. A first succesful showcasing of Donovan’s intelligence and backroom negociation skills
Slow disolve (classical, but not the most subtle direction by Spielberg) to a young American pilot Francis Gray Powers who’s about to be chosen to go an a secret mission with a U-2 spy plane equiped with the most advanced new cameras to take photographs over Russia where his plane is shot down and he’s captured.
A young American economic student Frederic Pryor is also detained by the east-Germans, literally amidst the buidling of the Berlin wall, the year is 1961.
The time has come to use Rudolf Abel as exchange for at least one of the 2 Americans held behind the iron curtain. The man for the Job, James Donovan in an unofficial capacity.
The direction of Spielberg is very solid, from the first shot he puts his visual mark on the film, no modern day fast cutting but instead a very classical well thought out style of directing. The problem however is that Spielberg cannot help being Spielberg and at times he has to hammer home the message eventhough it’s already been made clear in a more subtle way earlier.
In short the message of the film is: spies are spies and both sides use them, some have honor and are stand-up guys (standing men), others less so and the stand-up patriotic guys deserve our respect. Please note that both sides use coins, either to transport secret messages or to hide a suicide device in case one is caught.
The fim is very entertaining , well written (amongst others by the Coen brothers). The introduction scene of Tom Hanks as an insurance settlement lawyer sets the tone for some similar very crispy dialogue scenes. Mark Rylance (Intimacy and the upcoming Spielberg film The BFG) as Rudolf Abel really has the star part of the film and steals every scene he’s in, it must be the nicest depiction ever of a Russian spy in any movie, certainly one of the more original aspects of the film.
The original score for the film is by Thomas Newman which is somewhat of a rarity as John Williams has done every score for Spielberg starting with The Sugarland Express, Spielberg first studio picture except for The Color Purple which was scored by Quincy Jones who was also one of the producers on that film.
If you read my post and saw the video I prepared a couple of days ago regarding Martin Scorsese’s love for flashbulbs and camera clicks you’ll certainly notice Spielberg’s nod to Scorsese’s The Aviator with the floor of a courtroom hallway covered with used flashbulbs. I’ve prepared a new clip comparing both ‘The Aviator’ and the ‘Bridge of Spies’ scenes + featuring part of the ‘Bridge of Spies’ DGA Q&A Scorsese and Spielberg had and this scene comes up. And as the Coen brothers did some rewriting on the ‘Bridge of Spies’ script they can join in as well.
Below you can find the full interview on the Director’s Guild of America’s Youtube channel: