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A Lawyer Works A Deal: Bridge Of Spies

Updated on October 31, 2015

The Cold War era spoke of a threat where the Soviets would, sooner or later, use their nuclear arsenal against the United States. The tensions grew when a Soviet spy was arrested in his New York apartment in Bridge Of Spies. Set during a period in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Tom Hanks stars as James B. Donovan, a partner in a law firm who usually works on settling insurance claims. Following the arrest of British-born Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a covert operative for the Soviets, Donovan gets assigned the case of defending Abel by his firm, and chosen by the courts to the defense. Donovan does not get an acquittal, but he makes a plea with Judge Mortimer Byers (Dakin Matthews) to not sentence his client to death, believing Abel might one day be valuable in US-USSR relations. Abel gets prison, but Donovan pleads his case to the Supreme Court, citing procedural error. The justices side with the prosecution, but many, including Donovan's senior partner, Thomas Watters (Alan Alda), notice that Donovan has done much more than he needed.

That notice comes into play several years later, following the arrest and detention of Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), an Air Force pilot shot down over Soviet air space. Like Abel, Powers was convicted of spying and sentenced to prison. Donovan gets called to the office of CIA Director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) to negotiate a prisoner swap. He cannot tell his wife, Mary (Amy Ryan) or anybody else. He simply has to say he has gone overseas on business. With him is CIA agent Doug Forrester (Billy Magnusson), who advises Donovan on his moves. While supposedly in London, Donovan is in Berlin, just as the Soviets erect the Berlin Wall. While there, Donovan learns of the arrest of Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), a doctoral economics student caught in East Berlin as he's with his girlfriend. While he works with the Soviets on the deal to retrun Powers, Donovan also meets with East German lawyer Wolfgang Vogel (Sebastian Koch) to arrange Pryor's release, which the CIA has let him do conditionally. Koch does not know about the Soviet part in the deal, and threatens to withdraw his offer. Donovan has to think quickly to ensure that the East Germans remain aboard, and that the CIA gets what they want.

Bridge Of Spies, based on Donovan's actual experiences, is an engaging look at a man who takes his identity as an American citizen seriously. Jim Donovan simply doesn't show up in court to care just enought to make himself look credible. He takes pride in being an American counselor and upholding American legal ideals. He certainly takes pride in serving his country when he negotiates a prisoner swap, as well as a swap for a clearly innocent man. However, I found Bridge Of Spies to be a by-the-numbers legal drama from Steven Spielberg, in spite of a screenplay that included contributions from Joel and Ethan Coen. The Red Scare sequences in the classroom and in Donovan's community offer no fresh perspective. The story also offers little characterization beyond Donovan and Abel. The twists Donovan faces are interesting, but by no means are they compelling. Spielberg, though, recreates this era of history effectively as Donovan gives his best efforts for all.

Hanks carries much of the film, in spite of its deficiencies. The Abel trial shows how much he doesn't like the spotlight, especially when it impacts his family and questions whether he's a patriotic American. Even though he might feel just as certain of Abel's guilt as the prosecutors, he never discusses the particulars of the spying with his client. Donovan, though, makes sure Abel gets the best treatment he can get as both a prisoner and a person. When he works with the CIA as a private citizen, he displays his desire for doing what's right for his countrymen beyond his primary assignment. While his actions show compassion, any opposing counsel learns that Donovan will not waver when it comes to an equitable outcome. Rylance brings a humanity to his performance as Abel, a soft-spoken man with a treasonous agenda. Even as authorities arrest him, he tries to bury the secrets he has in the paints he uses as a leisure activity. Even though incarcerated, he shows concern for the lengths to which Donovan goes on his behalf. Alda and Ryan are among those who give effective performances, even though they are underutilized. Also in this category is Jesse Plemons as Joe Murphy, a friend and fellow pilot in the U2 program with Powers, who also plays a role in the swap.

I suppose a part of the existence of Bridge Of Spies has to do with the current American involvement in the Middle East. The United States has attempted to make changes by military might rather than by negotiation and the wishes of the people who live there. Fighting and killing always brings the chance that matters will get worse. Some experts on that part of the world contend that the changes have brought about less stability. James B. Donovan had seen how war had impacted the world, and how bombs could make matters so much worse. He wasn't willing to go easy on those who might threaten the American way of life, but his way with words were his method of creating a meaningful impact.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Bridge Of Spies three stars. A swap instead of a drop.


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