‘Bridge of Spies’ reminds us about our Cold War past and one of its heroes

The title of this movie, “Bridge of Spies,” is the colloquial name of a real place in Berlin and this movie is about real people and spies who live are more mundane and sometimes more tragic than James Bond. Again Tom Hanks gives an impressive performance as a family man who understands human nature and displays more humanity than the agents on both sides meant to protect their separate segments of it.

The Bridge of Spies is actually called the Glienicke Bridge and spans the Havel River, connecting Berlin with Potsdam. The current bridge was completed in 1907 with major repairs required after World War II. World War II saw the defeated Germany divided into  into four occupation zones and what became East Germany as the Soviet Zone. East Germany was  ruled by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, a Communist party. Berlin was a divided city,  zoned just as the rest of Germany until the Soviets built the Berlin Wall. The movie “Bridge of Spies” around the time when the Berlin Wall is being put up (1961).

During the Cold War, the bridge was closed off after the building of the Berlin Wall.  The Glienicke Bridge connected the West Berlin Allied Occupied sections with East Germany. As a result, the bridge became a place where four exchanges  were made, the last taking place in 1986. The first was on 10 February 1962. The movie “Bridge of Spies” is about the events leading up to the exchange.

At first, we have a sad-faced middle-aged man, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) who paints portraits. In a scene that might recall for some Norman Rockwell’s famous self-portrait, we first see Abel painting himself. He’s looks like a sad sack of a man. Nothing about him suggests handsome in the past or present nor does he have any charisma that would give him personality points. He also paints al fresco and is passed information in a hollow nickel placed underneath a public bench. When the American agents finally catch him, he is in his white underwear–tank top and underpants. Calmly, he asks for his dentures and to clean up his paint. Cleverly he is able to hide some of the information as the agents tear apart his Brooklyn apartment.  Abel is always calm and that bring a deadpan humor to the script.

In another part of town, a lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), explains to another lawyer why an accident is one incident and not five. He has been chosen to represent Abel but even his boss Thomas Watters (Alan Alda) doesn’t expect him to win or really even try.  Other lawyers had refused to take on Abel’s case. Donovan is struck by Abel’s unworried attitude, but Abel retorts, “Would it help?”

Fears and anger toward the Soviet Union were high and that prejudice is evidenced by the judge and the angry crowds who almost consider Donovan a traitor.  Although Watters loses the 1957 trial, he does prevent the judge from giving a death sentence. Donovan also appeals the case to the Supreme Court and during that time befriends Abel, showing him respect. Donovan reminds us that both sides have spies and “if they were caught, I am sure you’d wish them to be treated well.” Events elsewhere will ultimately prove Donovan’s strategies wise.

In a seedy motel, a group of men are being given polygraph tests. They will become drivers of spy planes that will fly on secret missions over the Iron Curtain to take photographs of military installations. The airplanes are small and light. They have no defenses. The airplanes are classified information, to be destroyed to avoid falling into Soviet hands and the pilots are instructed to commit suicide with a nick from a needle concealed in a hollow coin. “You cannot be shot down; you cannot be captured,” the “drivers” are told.

One American pilot on this CIA mission, Gary Powers, is shot down during a reconnaissance mission in 1960. This harrowing scene makes clear that Powers was attempting to follow orders, but the exploding airplane was not easily controlled. His capture and public spectacle became know as the U-2 Incident.

Sometime later, Watters receives a letter for Abel from Berlin, supposedly from Abel’s wife (Abel’s faux family is part of the understated humor in this movie). The actual meaning of the letter is more subtle, particularly when Abel asserts that it is not from his real wife. Yet other things are happening in Berlin. A wall is being built and a young PhD candidate crosses from the American side to the Russian held side, attempting to help his professor and his daughter to escape to freedom, but he is too late. And instead of being allowed back the man, Frederic Pryor, is imprisoned by the East Germans.

The ending you can pretty much figure out. The changing public sentiment is relayed to us by scenes in public transport. At the end, we learn about what happened to the main characters.

Tom Hanks gives a solid performance as a man with family concerns and a clear-headed concept of what is right and wrong, a morality that contrasts the actions and ideology of the secret services involved. This might not be reality, but the movie reminds us of what the Cold War was like and that sometimes civilians had to clean up afterward. Director Steven Spielberg never strays into the mawkish sentimentality although family and country are considered. This is a measured, even-toned scripting without flag-waving but also without any tenuous parallels with the current war on terrorism of today.

Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen’s script is pleasurable in its unexpected low-key humor and how they show the intrusion of hysteria into Donovan’s family. The audience will likely laugh out loud at the “duck and cover” sequence. Janusz Kaminsky’s cinematography glows with an air of nostalgia except for moments when bluish-white lights burn out some of the details. To be sure, the script too has blurred out some of the details for dramatic effect.

This is a different type of spy thriller, one where family and solid moral values are important in defining the main character’s actions and defining the meaning of being a U.S. citizen. Hanks again bring us the decent man, humble but smart and doing it all for his family. This is a refresher to remind current generations where we have been and that the humane approach is often the right approach and how quickly public sentiment can change. The film is rated PG-13 for violence and brief strong language.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.