Bridge of Spies

BRIDGE OF SPIES. Starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Sebastien Koch. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 135 minutes,.

Here is a film that will satisfy an audience looking for intelligent and interesting entertainment. It takes us back to the late 1950s, the period of the Cold War, the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

It has been directed by Steven Spielberg. 2015 sees the 40th anniversary of his classic, Jaws. While Spielberg is universally remembered for the broadly popular films like the Indiana Jones series, ET, Jurassic Park, he won an Oscar in 1993 for his very serious film, Schindler’s List. Since then he has made a number of dramas for adult audiences including Saving Private Ryan and, more recently, Lincoln.

Many of his films have a distinctly patriotic American tone as does Bridge of Spies. But it is not jingoistic. Rather, there is a deep humanism and respect underlying Spielberg’s films. And, in this film, he is aided by the presence of Tom Hanks who over the years has become something of an icon of an American character who is motivated by a sense of decency.

The film sets its scene by the introduction of a spy, Abel, played with car calm self-possession by British actor, Mark Rylance. He is a loner, a loyal Russian, a painter, adept at eluding followers, shrewd in his way of communicating messages – but the FBI are aware of him and take him in. While the American authorities and public opinion want him condemned, even executed, they think that there should be a show of American justice and Jim Donovan, Hanks, an insurance lawyer who had been present at the Nuremburg prosecutions, is the person to defend him.

When Jim Donovan meets Abel, he offers him a proper defence, discusses the situation, suggests to listeners, and to his upset family, that Abel is not a traitor but a loyal soldier to his cause. Nevertheless, the presiding judge does not see it that way and, very quickly, Abel is found guilty.

But one of the points of the film is that with growing espionage during the 1950s, if the Soviet Union interrogates a captured American spy, there will be a parallel condemnation. Donovan makes the case for a prison sentence so that a Russian spy could be available when the Americans are in need for an exchange.

Older audiences may remember the Francis Gary Powers case where an American air force man flying photography missions over Soviet space is shot down, captured and interrogated. The Americans don’t want Powers giving information to the Soviets and the Soviets don’t want Abel giving information to the Americans. An exchange of Spies becomes an important factor in American-Soviet relations, especially under the CIA leadership of Alan Dulles.

All this makes the first part of the film very interesting, an exploration of American values at the time, given the context of paranoia about possible nuclear terror attacks, children being indoctrinated at school, becoming afraid at home, and the way of coping with the bomb, Duck and Cover.

The latter part of the film finds Jim Donovan asked by Dulles to negotiate the exchange, but without any authority from the American government. He goes to Berlin, warned about East Germany and its totalitarian regime, and Berlin as a divided city. This is the period of the building of the Berlin Wall and the film shows this in some detail as well is the case of an American student who wants to bring his girlfriend and her professor father from the East into West Berlin but is captured and interned.

There is a great deal of suspense, and some very good dialogue as Donovan has to meet with the Soviet authorities, the head of the KGB in Eastern Europe, with an East German lawyer and an East German official, trying diplomatic shrewdness in order to achieve the exchange. Donovan includes the freeing of the young student as well as Powers.

The film is continually interesting, especially for those who remember some of these years and this history. Perhaps audiences not so familiar with this era may find it something of a history lesson – but that is not a bad thing.

Steven Spielberg will soon be 70 with many years of filmmaking ahead of him, a very good thing in light of his success with Bridge of Spies.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out October 22 2015.