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Film / Bridge of Spies

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"What's the next move when you don't know what the game is?"
"The next mistake our countries make could be the last one. We need to have the conversation our governments can't."'
James B. Donovan

Bridge of Spies is a 2015 historical thriller directed by Steven Spielberg, with a screenplay co-written by Matt Charman and The Coen Brothers.

During the height of The Cold War, New York City insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is approached to defend Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy who has been arrested for espionage. Knowing full well that defending a Russian spy would bring negative publicity on himself and his family, Donovan nevertheless agrees to take the case, believing that everyone has the right to a fair defense. However, despite his efforts Abel is found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

But wait, there's more! A U-2 Spy plane is shot down over the USSR, and soon the Soviet Union has the American pilot Francis Gary Powers in their custody. Donovan is recruited once again, this time by the CIA to travel to East Berlin and negotiate a Prisoner Exchange, returning Abel to Russia in return for Powers being released into US custody. A wrinkle is added when the East Germans arrest an American student named Frederic Pryor during the confusion created by the construction of the Berlin Wall; The CIA doesn't want to jeopardize the exchange with the USSR for Powers by making it conditional on Pryor's release, but Donovan is determined to get both Americans back no matter what it takes.

The movie also stars Alan Alda, Amy Ryan, Peter McRobbie, Billy Magnussen, and Sebastian Koch. It was released in the U.S. on October 16, 2015. Thomas Newman is the composer, making this the first Spielberg movie since The Color Purple to not have a John Williams score.

Bridge of Spies contains examples of:

  • Age Lift: The real life James Donovan was in his early 40s during the events depicted in the film, but Tom Hanks was near 60 when he played him.
  • Amoral Attorney:
    • Donovan's colleagues, who seem more interested in creating the illusion of a defense for Abel than actually defending him.
    • The East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel is even worse since he's keeping a man he knows to be innocent imprisoned solely to get a leg up for East Germany in the Soviet hierarchy.
    • Donovan himself, in a positive way. He explicitly never asks Abel if he's guilty or not, reasoning that he has to defend the guy either way so it doesn't matter. He tells his CIA contact that Abel has a constitutional right to a meaningful defense, and that it's his job as an American to uphold the constitution. He also commits ex parte communication by informally discussing his client's sentencing with the trial judge, in the judge's private residence and without the prosecution.
  • Anachronism Stew: The film features the R32 railway trains, in the 1950s, almost a decade before they were supposed to be produced.
  • An Aesop: Don't compromise your sense of justice just because it will make you unpopular (Donovan) or because you seek security (The Americans and Soviets) or recognition (East Germany).
  • Arc Words:
    • This repeated exchange between James and Rudolf, which is repeated three times.
    James Donovan: Aren't you worried?
    Rudolf Abel: Would it help?
    • "Standing Man", Abel's story about the man who kept being beaten but kept getting up. He relates it to Donovan standing up for his principles.
  • Artistic License History:
    • When Donovan is recruited to defend Abel, he protests that he is primarily an insurance lawyer. However, the film does not mention that he was also General Counsel for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner to the CIA) during World War II (between 1943 to 1945, to be exact) and so was fully experienced dealing with spies. It does, however, expliticlty mention him working for the prosecution at Nuremberg.
    • Donovan was also fully experienced in dealing with big, controversial cases: He became assistant to Justice Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg trials. While he prepared for the trials, he was also working as an advisor for the documentary feature The Nazi Plan. Donovan was the presenter of visual evidence at the trial.
    • Donovan's home was never shot at, a event made up for the film for Rule of Drama. They did however, receive threatening phonecalls.
    • Most of the events involving Powers were inaccurate, the biggest inaccuracy arguably being his scenes of being tortured by the Soviets. In reality, they treated him pretty well and his biggest worry during his time in captivity was the possibility of his wife having an affair while he was away.
    • Frederic Pryor, having seen the film, notes that while he finds it entertaining, he feels that the section concerning him is inaccurate. (Not surprising, as according to him, he had no input on and was not allowed to see the script) He noted that there was no romance with a German girl, that his arrest had more to do with genuine confusion than helping out dissidents. Pryor's East German Lawyer Wolfgang Vogel also gets a Historical Villain Upgrade, as he was not merely a Soviet stooge as depicted in the movie and tried to properly represent his client.
    • One scene depicts Donovan witnessing (from his carriage) several people getting machine-gunned when they try to cross the Berlin wall. As a matter of fact, the GDR never installed machine guns in the inner-city wall segments to avoid exactly this kind of bad publicity (though the guards still got submachine guns, carbines and assault rifles).
  • Bad "Bad Acting": Abel's "family," recruited by the Soviets to try to guilt the US into favorable terms. Donovan isn't fooled for a moment (and hangs a snarky lampshade on it in a later scene).
  • Butt-Monkey: East Germany. The Americans treat the entire nation as nothing more than Soviet stooges, and the Soviets themselves couldn't care less about the East Germans' opinions.
  • Call-Back: Donovan rides the train at the end while people are reading the newspaper and looking at his face, except unlike earlier in the film he is seen as a hero rather than an enemy sympathizer. The same shot also references the train ride in Berlin where he sees East Germans being shot while trying to climb the wall, contrasting it with kids climbing over a backyard fence.
  • Checkpoint Charlie: The one and only. Also where Frederic Pryor gets freed.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: The U.S. is afraid that the Soviets are going to squeeze the information about their spy program out of Powers through torture while he's in their custody. They are in fact interrogating him, albeit using something more along the lines of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. They do not use anything that would mark his body, like blades, beatings, or electric shocks, but they deprive him of sleep, splash icy water on him, and subject him to interrogation sessions that go on for hours in their attempts to break his resistance. See Artistic License History regarding this.
  • Comically Missing the Point: After a news broadcast relays Donovan's success in the prisoner exchange in East Germany, his children are confused because they thought he went on a fishing trip.
  • Commie Nazis: The feel the movie seems to give to the East Germans. While obviously Communist, the East German NVA uniforms resemble Wehrmacht ones and The Stasi wouldn't look too out of place as Gestapo agents in the Third Reichnote . Not to mention the East Germans are fanatical with border control in Berlin. Finally, a gang of trouble making boys Donovan runs into feel eerily similar to modern neo Nazi skinhead groups. Of course, this is all for external appearances and rather meaningless when it comes to actual politics.
  • Conservation of Detail:
    • The film makes no mention that the U2 aerial reconnaissance team had several successful missions before Powers was shot down. However since Gary Powers isn't the only pilot we see, it's possible to draw the general implication anyway.
    • When being interrogated, Powers is asked if he was flying the plane on April 9th, and he explicitly says he wasn't. Seeing as the Russians are asking him about this, it can be assumed the pilot on April 9th was not caught/his body never recovered.
  • Cool Old Guy: Rudolf Abel, despite being a Soviet spy, is portrayed as a surprisingly likable and sympathetic character. He's just trying to serve his country, same as Gary Powers.
  • Cool Plane: The U-2 spy plane Powers flies before being shot down over Russia.
  • Crapsaccharine World: American suburban life is dandy, unless you're accused of supporting a Communist — then angry folks will make attempts on your life.
  • Crazy Survivalist: A mild version. Donovan's son begins taking absurd safety measures to protect himself from a nuclear war until his father tells him to get a hold of himself.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Donovan becomes this, taking Abel's case because he believes even those working against the United States deserve equal protection under the Constitution.
  • Cyanide Pill: U2 spy plane pilots are instructed to commit suicide should they risk capture. They are given a fake silver dollar with a poison-laced pin for this purpose.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Donovan has a dry sense of humor which helps him deal with some of his unreasonable circumstances.
  • Determinator: Abel's story about "Standing Man", his father's friend who would get up to his feet no matter how often or how severely he was beaten. Abel thinks Donovan is like that man.
  • Dirty Commies: Zigzagged. While East Germany is shown to be continuing Germany's authoritative and military persona and the Soviets are clearly more interested in self-preservation than justice, Donovan will still go out of his way to defend Abel.
    • Abel is something of an aversion. He is indeed a spy, but he's shown to be less an ideologue than a soldier loyal to his nation, which he defended during the Second World War. He even implies that he knows that the Soviet government has become corrupt, but nonetheless, "is always the Boss."
  • Drives Like Crazy: Wolfgang Vogel, the East German attorney, speeds through the street of East Berlin, in the snow, like a complete maniac.
  • Foreshadowing: When we first see Donovan, he is trying to negotiate a case in which his client accidentally hit five men with his car. Donovan explains that his client's policy only pays up to $100,000 per accident, and that since all five men are considered part of the same accident they will have to split the $100,000. The lawyer representing the five victims demands that much for each of them, pointing out that from their perspective it was five separate accidents. This foreshadows the exchange Donovan will have with the East German representative Wolfgang Vogel, where Donovan argues that Powers and Pryor are part of one prisoner exchange, but Vogel insists that East Germany needs it to be seen as two exchanges for the sake of East German international respect.
  • The '50s: The film begins in 1957 Brooklyn, with the appropriate fifties scenery and cultural cues. The story continues into beginning of The '60s.
  • Friendly Enemy: Unlike his fellow Americans gripped by anti-Soviet hysteria, Donovan always treats Abel with dignity and respect, even when it endangers himself or his family. Similarly, Rudolf Abel is always well-spoken and deferential to his Amercan captors.
  • Gangbangers: Donovan encounters these in East Berlin, who steal his coat.
  • Gangland Drive-By: A gang drives by to shoot at the Donovan house for defending a Soviet spy.note 
  • Glorious Mother Russia: Averted with Rudolf Abel, who shows no stereotypical Russian traits. Justified since he was trained to be a spy and fit in North America (and he also grew up in the UK). Although he does want a vodka when he gets back home to the Soviet Union.
  • Guile Hero: Donovan is a good guy who uses his cunning and intellect to manipulate everyone else in order to achieve his idealistic goals.
  • Hanging Judge: Judge Byers thinks that it's more important to convict a potential spy than to have him excercise his constitutional rights. The only reason Donovan can make him reduce the death sentence to 30 years in prison is to convince him that Abel would be useful in a potential Prisoner Exchange.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: Donovan believes that the edicts of constitutional justice apply even to a Soviet spy. This gets his family targeted.
  • Historical Domain Character: Donovan, Powers, Pryor, and Abel.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Frederic Pryor is depicted as having been arrested in a heroic attempt to rescue a (in reality non-existent) German girlfriend from East Berlin. In reality, he was trying to return his library books before the wall went up.
  • Historical Relationship Overhaul: The Real Life Frederic Pryor has noted that his movie counterpart's romance with a German girl was created out of whole cloth.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • Wolfgang Vogel, Pryor's East German lawyer wasn't a Soviet apparatchik as in the movie, but was actually loyal to his client and did his best to represent his interests. He did state, however, that the East German government was hoping to use his capture to score cheap brownie points within the Soviet hierarchy. There are also accounts from Vogel's clients which paint a less than flattering image of him, and he did become very rich by basically helping to sell victims of the GDR regime to the West.
    • Powers' Soviet captors are shown to torture him for information just prior to his release. In Powers' memoir, Operation Overflight, he is very adamant that he was never tortured and was treated very well compared to what he was expecting.
  • Hollywood Law: Donovan informally discusses the sentencing of Abel with the judge outside of court without the opposing prosecutor being present. This is called ex parte communication and is a serious breach of legal ethics, certainly unintentional given how much focus is given on Donovan's refusal to compromise his integrity. In reality, Donovan did present these arguments to the judge, but he did so in open court.
  • The Idealist: Donovan's interest is in justice, not national power, and he refuses to give up his principles for political expediency.
  • I Was Never Here: Subverted in the following conversation:
    Hoffman: Has your guy talked?
    Donovan: Excuse me?
    Hoffman: You met him. Has he talked? Has he said anything yet?
    Donovan: We're not having this conversation.
    Hoffman: Of course not.
    Donovan: No, I mean we are really not having it. You're asking me to violate attorney-client privilege.
  • Kangaroo Court: During the trial of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, the judge has no interest in being impartial and deliberately commits judicial misconduct; when Abel's attorney notes that evidence from an illegal search should be rendered inadmissible, the judge allows it to stand, disregarding a prior Supreme Court decision that states even a foreign alien is entitled to the same right to due process as a citizen. This trope is then extended all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Abel's appeal is rejected by a 54 vote.
  • Large Ham: The East German Attorney General spends every second he is on screen chewing the scenery with delight.
  • Loved I Not Honor More: Donovan's efforts on behalf of Abel puts him and his family at risk of bad publicity and violence, and his wife implores him to stop, but he continues and also attempts the prisoner exchange without telling her because he thinks doing the right thing is what's most important. When she finds out what he did she isn't pleased at first, but ultimately she smiles as if to accept that she loves him precisely because he stands up for what he believes in.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Donovan cites this trope as a reason why Abel cannot be considered a traitor unlike the Rosenbergs. Abel was merely following the directives given to him by his senior officer. Abel himself gives a cynical, and typically Russian, definition of this concept:
    Rudolf Abel: The boss is not always right, but he is always the boss.
  • Nerves of Steel: No matter how bad things get, Abel never gets rattled about anything. It's the source of his catch phrase, "Would it help?"
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Despite being archenemies, both the Communists and Americans are willing to compromise their idealistic beliefs to persecute those they view as spies and traitors. Likewise, Donovan argues that Abel is no different from an American operative following orders from his government, which becomes particularly pertinent once Powers is captured.
  • Oh, Crap!: Powers panics as he realizes he is about to get shot down.
  • Omnidisciplinary Lawyer: Double Subverted and downplayed. James Donovan was trained in criminal law (as far as the movie knows), served on the prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials, made a living practicing insurance law for some number of years, all before being recruited to defend Abel. He spends the rest of the movie negotiating prisoner exchanges with foreign powers.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: The "German Democratic Republic" and the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" are authoritarian single-party police states disguised by democratic-sounding names, and they're not afraid to do what it takes to get rid of their enemies whether foreign or domestic. Ironically not as different from the United States which is shown to compromise its civil liberties in the name of national security.
  • The Political Officer: Stasi and East German army officers fit this trope.
  • Police Brutality: Standard beat downs from Soviet and East German security forces. Meanwhile, American police aren't too excited about helping Donovan after his defense of Abel, leaving him to the wolves of America's populace.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The film is seen as a fairly accurate representation of Real Life events, all things considered, with a few minor liberties taken for dramatic effect. For instance, the Donovan family wasn't home when their house was shot at, and Frederic Pryor did not have a girlfriend in East Berlin.
  • Prisoner Exchange: Donovan has to negotiate a swap with the Soviets and also has to juggle it with the East Germans.
  • Red Scare: American hatred for Communists in this time period is made abundantly clear and a scene features American school children watching a nuclear war safety video.
  • Refuge in the West: In the beginning we see East Berliners frantically dashing into West Berlin before the remaining gaps in the wall are filled in, trapping them on the Soviet side.
  • Running Gag:
    • "Would it help?" as said by Abel.
    • Donovan having a cold and constantly needing to blow his nose. Later infects the rest of the American crew.
  • Scenery Gorn: Both Berlins feature this, as lampshaded by Donovan. The Soviet embassy in the East and a hotel in the west are the only scenes visually pleasing to the eye in Germany. The East Germans are paticularly bitter about it
    Vogel: Our Russian friends have decided that we should not rebuild our capital city. But we live in this ruin made by our Russian friends.
  • Shoe Phone: Rudolf Abel is shown receiving messages with a fake hollowed-out nickel, while the American U2 pilots are given a silver dollar with a poison-laced pin, to be used if they were in danger of being captured.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The video the American school kids watch on nuclear safety is none other than "Duck and Cover".
    • Visible on a movie marquee in West Germany is Spartacus. Notably written by another accused communist, Dalton Trumbo. For a double Shout Out, trailers for a biopic on Trumbo's life played in some theaters before this film.
    • Also visible on the marquee is "Eins, Zwei, Drei", the German title for Billy Wilder's Cold War satire One, Two, Three.
  • Shown Their Work: Donovan cites Mapp v. Ohio, the precedent that any evidence obtained during the illegal search of Abel's apartment cannot be used in court. Furthermore, when the judge tries to shoot this down on the grounds that Abel is not an American citizen, Donovan cites (by name) the case Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the precedent that constitutional protections apply to anyone living in the U.S., not just American citizens.
  • Sociopathic Soldier: East German border guards seem to enjoy keeping people separated.
  • State Sec: The Stasi and CIA. Both sleazy as usual.
  • The Stoic: Abel. His answer to anyone asking whether he is worried is "Would it help?".
  • Take That!: To the Red Scare, for making Americans insanely paranoid about Communists to the point where patriotism was drilled into their minds, fears of nuclear war were common, and were more than willing to destroy their own constitutional rights. The GDR and USSR don't get off free either, as they are shown as authoritarian police states that repress their citizens and shoot people trying to climb over the wall.
  • Tempting Fate: Donovan convinces the judge sentencing Abel to give him 30 years imprisonment instead of the death penalty because Abel might be useful if the Soviets ever capture an American spy and the two countries want to do an exchange. The judge dismisses it as lunacy. No points for guessing what happens next.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Pryor's East German girlfriend disappears from the movie halfway through and her fate is left completely unknown.
  • What the Hell Is That Accent?: Abel (played by the British actor Mark Rylance) speaks with a heavy accent that shuffles around between British and Russian. Justified, since Donovan mentions to his son that Abel was raised in Northern Britain before moving to Russia in his 20s.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Intertitle graphics just before the end credits reveal what happened to Abel, Powers, Pryor, and Donovan following the events of the film.
  • Worthy Opponent: Whether Donovan thinks Abel is a spy or not in never made clear, but he does mention that if Abel is working for the Soviets, then he's an admirable soldier for not betraying them even under threat of execution.

"Every guy matters."