Bridge of Spies
starring Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, and Alan Alda
written by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen
directed by Steven Spielberg
Based on the 1960 U-2 spy plane incident between the U.S.A. and the USSR, Tom Hanks plays civilian lawyer James Donovan hired by the U.S. government to defend captured Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). Amidst Cold War paranoia and fear many pressed for Abel’s execution, but Donovan delivered a more robust defense than anyone expected and swayed the judge towards a more lenient sentence of long imprisonment on the premise that lenient treatment might be a card to play against the eventuality of American spies being apprehended behind the Iron Curtain.
Then unexpectedly exactly that happened when the Soviets shot down Gary Power’s U-2 plane in May 1960. Powers was shot down from an altitude of 21,300 m / 70,000 ft., surprising the Americans with their surface-to-air missile technology, a flight that was thought to be immune from their military hardware’s reach at that time. Powers (1929-1977) was captured, held and tried for espionage.
But the Americans had Rudolf Abel whom they could use as a bargaining chip. The CIA invited Donovan to enter East Berlin (the Berlin Wall was under construction) in a very tense environment to meet Soviet and East German officials. The East Germans were holding an American economics student, Frederic Pryor, who accidentally got caught behind the Wall and detained.
The U.S. government wanted to avoid any official contact with the East Germans so as not to appear give official recognition of their regime. Meanwhile, Donovan had to juggle negotiations with two foreign communist governments harboring different agendas. Like a high-stakes poker game there is posturing and brinkmanship. No one knows the other’s cards, no one knows who, if anyone is bluffing, and no one knows the others’ agenda or stamina in the spy game. It makes for very tense psychological drama.
I was impressed with British actor Mark Rylance’s performance. I knew his face but not his name or anything about him.
I thought the sound was very interesting in this film, very intense. I don’t mean the sound effects, I mean the sound editing. Things like the sound of footsteps on wooden floors, doors opening and closing, etc. It was so crystal clear that it sounded like a Terrene Malik movie. Malik came to feature length commercial film from documentary film making, and he uses a certain aurally striking documentary sound editing regimen which is instantly recognizable.
Donovan successfully trades Rudolf Abel for the two Americans at the Glienicke Bridge in the dead of night and is hailed a hero back home where he was once excoriated for his defense of the Russian spy. Later, the Kennedy government used him in 1962 to negotiate a Bay of Pigs prisoner-for-money-and-medicine swap with Communist Cuba.