Based on true events in 1957, during the height of the cold war, both the people of the United States and the Soviet Union were afraid of each other. Trying to avoid nuclear annihilation, both countries spied on each other.
James Donavan (Tom Hanks) is an American lawyer in New York who is, against his desire, assigned to defend Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet Spy who was caught by the FBI. Donavan knows that Abel will be the most hated man in the country, and he the second most hated. While this is going on, the American military is preparing pilots to fly missions on the brand-new U2 spy plane over Russia, photographing targets from 70,000 feet.
Donavan, a civilian lawyer and family man, suddenly finds himself on his own in East Germany in the middle of an international intrigue, seemingly in way over his head.
Bridge of Spies runs for 2 hours and 15 minutes, and I heard some movie-goers comment that the first half was too long and slow. I didn’t feel that, and I enjoyed every minute of it. The movie shows how the Berlin Wall was built, what the political climate in Germany was during that time, and how the United States and the Soviet Union were the puppet masters over the Germans, both East and West, during those years.
When I watch movies or read books about that time in Germany, I always do with frustration and disbelief. The “communist experiment” obviously didn’t work. The East Germans built themselves a bankrupt country out of the rubble the Soviets left after they ground Hitler and his empire to dust. In 1961, most of the ruin of East Berlin is still evident everywhere, and in some cases would be for decades to follow. The East Germans figured out that all their people where getting out of the country as fast as they could. On August 13, 1961, they started building a wall to completely surround West Berlin, thus preventing their own people from escaping to the west.
What kind of country has to build a cage to keep itself inside? Yet, from 1961 to 1989, East Germany shot its own people if they tried to escape. The band on the eastern side of the wall (see picture) shows the killing zone.
Bridge of Spies puts us in the middle of East Berlin during that time. We feel the angst of the people. We feel the political tensions. And we feel the insanity of it all.
The main protagonists, besides Donavan, are the Soviet spy and the American pilot, both pawns in the chess game of the superpowers. Their fate completely depends on the moves of others. Both are shown as men of strength and integrity. The Soviet spy, reviled by everyone in the United States, is apparently a good man, with solid character, strong ethics, and a conviction that he does the right thing for the right cause. So is the American pilot.
Spielberg does an excellent job telling this story in vivid detail. When I walked out of the theater, I found myself feeling glad that we have brought this part of our history behind us.
Now on to the Middle East.