‘Bridge of Spies’ Is Absurd — And That’s Not a Bad Thing
A Coen brothers movie with Spielberg’s eyes
Bridge of Spies is a surreal movie. We first meet the film’s hero — famed Nuremberg prosecutor James Donovan — in the midst of committing high scumbaggery. It’s 1957, the Nazi trials are long over and Donovan now works in insurance. He protects his company from paying out too much and he makes sure everyone plays by the rules.
One of his company’s clients ran down five motorcyclists in a terrible traffic accident. The plaintiffs’ attorney sees it as five separate accidents and wants five separate settlements. Donovan doesn’t see it that way. One accident, one pay out. Those are the rules, and if we don’t play by the rules then who are we?
That’s the essence of Donovan’s character — rules shape our identity. Everyone should play by them, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. So when the FBI pinches Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and the New York State Bar picks Donovan to provide the man’s legal counsel, they perhaps made the wrong choice.
Everyone in America — from the CIA to the judge to Donovan’s own family — knows Abel is guilty and want him punished. It’s the Cold War, and certain rules of society should wait until the war is over. Besides, Abel isn’t even an American citizen.
But Donovan won’t have it. He wants appeals and due process. He wants to obey the Constitution to the letter. It’s a constant annoyance to every other American on the planet who wants Abel’s trial to be a grand show that climaxes in a hanging.
Then the Soviets shoot down an American spy plane over Russia … and things get weird.
Steven Spielberg directed Bridge of Spies but Matt Charman and the Coen brothers wrote it. The Coen’s darkly madcap sensibility and Spielberg’s spirit of sentimental adventure blend but never quite mix. They clash but never quite crash. It makes the film odd, but not bad.
The first half of the movie follows Donovan — played by Tom Hanks — as he defends accused Soviet spy Abel. Mark Rylance plays Abel with a resigned weariness. Early on, Donovan explains the charges against Abel and their punishments. America will probably execute the spy, but he seems unbothered.
“You don’t seem alarmed,” Donovan says.
“Would it help?” Abel shrugs and wipes his nose. It’s the first of many charming comedic beats in the movie.
Hanks is in typical noble, everyman form in the first half of the film. He stands in the light, stares into the middle distance and delivers speeches on the importance of the Constitution. The camera caresses him while orchestral strings waft through courtrooms.
It’s maudlin and I cringed in my theater seat during some of it. But Spielberg knows what he’s doing and these scenes help establish Donovan’s nature and set him apart from the rest of the world … and the rest of the film, which belongs to the Coen brothers.
In 1960, the Russians shot down Francis Powers in his U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. In the film, as in real life, Donovan is in charge of the negotiating an exchange of prisoners. Powers for Abel … but there’s a wrinkle.
Well, there’s a lot of wrinkles, and Donovan spends the back half of the movie negotiating them. He crosses into a world of spies, Stasi and Soviet paranoia. First of all, Moscow requests the negotiations take place in East Berlin.
But it’s 1960, and the U.S. has not yet recognized the German Democratic Republic as a legitimate government. The CIA keeps Donovan’s negotiations secret.
The film changes completely when Hanks crosses into East Berlin. East Germany is still wallowing in the ruins of World War II. It’s a nation of dull primary colors, roving street gangs and paperwork. Bureaucracy breeds absurdity and the Coens’ script comes into full bloom under the oppressive weight of both the Soviet and GDR governments.
The Russian and German characters seem to squirm with uncomfortable Coen charm. Donovan is never quite sure who to trust or even who to talk to. KGB ghoul Ivan Shishkin slithers and leers. GDR attache Wolfgang Vogel preens, grins and speaks impeccable English. GDR attorney general Harald Ott guffaws and gladhands.
These three people bounce Donovan from embassy to embassy while the GDR fortifies the border and guns down people trying to flee. Donovan is dealing with not just one totalitarian regime but two, and the film takes great pains to highlight the differences between the GDR and the USSR.
The communist allies want very different things and often work at cross purposes. Watching Hanks navigate these intricacies and attempt to play the Soviets against the Germans is a joy.
Bridge of Spies’ attention to detail is incredible. The costumes, props, military information and spycraft techniques are all pretty close to historically accurate. Charman and the Coens streamlined the details of the story, but the broad strokes remain true.
The real-life case was, of course, more complicated than the film makes it out to be, but Spielberg and the Coens do a commendable job of preserving the essence of the true tale while delivering an entertaining film. Donovan’s moral character is almost too good to be true, and the USSR and GDR are almost too weird to be believed.
But such things did happen. Once, in the middle of the Cold War when the world stood on the brink of nuclear Armageddon, an insurance lawyer from New York City went to East Berlin and negotiated a prisoner exchange between rival superpowers. That’s crazy to think about.