In the 1700s, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The statement has been proved true time and again, but the proof has come in both the negative and the positive. In the last century political leaders appeased Hitler in the 1930s, which led to war and the Holocaust in the 1940s. At the same time individuals like Oskar Schindler, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, and Sir Nicholas Winton saved thousands from extermination during the war. They didn’t do it for glory; their actions were mostly unknown during their lifetimes. They did it because it was the right thing to do.
Schindler was known only to a handful until Thomas Keneally’s told his story in “Schindler’s List,” which reached the masses through Steven Spielberg’s movie adaptation. Now Spielberg tells the story of another regular person who stood up for what was right at a time of hysteria in the US. Bridge of Spies is the story of James B. Donovan, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was counsel for the OSS during WWII and who helped with the prosecution at the Nuremburg Trials after the war. In the 1950s he was a partner in a New York City firm specializing in real estate law when his country called for his service again.
The movie begins in 1957 as the FBI closes in on Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an English-born Russian spy operating in New York City. After his arrest the government is faced with trying him for espionage, but no lawyer wants to seem disloyal to the US by defending Abel. Through his firm’s senior partner, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), the government approaches Donovan (Tom Hanks) to take the case. The authorities expect Donovan to put on a show defense while Abel is convicted and sentenced to death, but Donovan believes that everyone is entitled to the best legal defense. The case eventually ends up before the Supreme Court.
Concurrent with Abel’s trial, the film shows the flip side of the espionage story with the recruitment of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and other Air Force pilots to work for the CIA as U2 spy plane pilots. Donovan saves Abel from the death penalty by suggesting to the judge that he might not want to set a precedent that the Soviets could follow if an American spy is captured. It’s a prescient argument when Powers is shot down over the USSR and Donovan is drafted again to negotiate an exchange.
There had been interest before in telling the story before. Gregory Peck had wanted to make a movie of it a few years after the event, with Alec Guinness as Abel, but his studio (MGM) wasn’t supportive. There was a TV movie in the 70s that told the Powers side of the story in an attempt to repair his reputation. When he returned to the States many considered him incompetent for getting shot down and captured, and he ended his days as an airborne reporter for a TV station in Southern California. He died in a helicopter crash in 1977, sacrificing himself to avoid hitting where children were playing.
Instead the story waited over 50 years to be told, but in this case it has aged remarkably well. The script is remarkably literate and detailed in its presentation of the late-50s/early-60s period. Spielberg recruited fellow filmmakers Joel and Ethan Cohen along with Mark Chapman to write the script, and they capture the era perfectly – a time when people expected an atomic war and children were taught to duck-and-cover, as if that could save them from incineration. They also capture parts of the incident that have been forgotten. While the events of the film transpired over the course of 5 years, Spielberg tells the story with the intensity and immediacy of a Cold War spy thriller. Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, provides rich color for the scenes in the US while changing to grays and shadows when the story switches to Berlin. This movie marks a major change for Spielberg, since it’s the first time he’s had anyone other than John Williams score one of his pictures. However, the movie is well served by the subtle theme written by Thomas Newman.
Hanks, as always, is stellar as Donovan, capturing the lawyer’s cerebral intellect as well as his quiet courage. Mark Rylance embodies Abel beautifully. When Donovan asks Abel why he’s not worried, Abel responds “Would it help?” They have the interchange three times in the movie, and each time Rylance adds shades of meaning to the simple exchange. Also outstanding is Amy Ryan as Donovan’s supportive if not always understanding wife.
In my recent review of Suffragette, I said that the film was more narrowly focused rather than giving a panoramic understanding of the time to the audience. Bridge of Spies is the opposite; you come out of the theater feeling like you’ve just had a trip in a time machine. As often happens, history cycles, and the themes of this film are as topical today as they were when these events took place. If you sacrifice the laws that are the foundation of this country in the name of expediency because of fears, then you also sacrifice the honor of the country as well. We need to be the good people who do what’s right if we really want to keep evil from triumphing.