Bridge of Spies (2015)

A review by Shlomoh Sherman
November 17, 2015

Bridge of Spies (2015)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Matt Charman, Ethan Coen
Stars: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Alan Alda
Plot Summary: During the Cold War, an American lawyer is recruited to defend an arrested
Soviet spy in court, and then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of the spy for the Soviet
captured American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
Plot Keywords: lawyer - cold war - spy - pilot - spy plane
Taglines: In the shadow of war, one man showed the world what we stand for.
Genres: Biography - Drama - History - Thriller
Motion Picture Rating (MPAA)
Rated PG-13 for some violence and brief strong language
Country: USA - India - Germany
Language: English - German - Russian
Release Date: October 16, 2015 (USA)
Also Known As: St. James Place
Filming Locations: Glienicker Brücke, Potsdam, Germany
Box Office:
Budget: $40,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend: $15,371,203 (USA) (October 16, 2015)
Gross: $61,695,554 (USA) (November 13, 2015)
Company Credits:
Production Co: Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks SKG, Fox 2000 Pictures
Runtime: 141 min
Sound Mix: Datasat - Dolby Digital
Color: Color - Black and White (archive footage)

In his October 6, 2015 review of this movie, Nsharath009 from London makes some remarks that emotionally resonate with me and take me back to an earlier, and surprisingly, more innocent period in our nation's history. I do not use the word "innocent" to mean that the era was not fraught with danger, but innocent in that neither we Americans nor our Soviet antagonists had the level of sophistication that we 21st century people have gained by facing an ever increasing explosion of evil throughout the world. Back then, evrything was black and white, good and bad, much the way it still is in the minds of folks wedded to both extremes of the current political spectrum.

Nsharath009 states, "For people of Spielberg's generation, the early years of the nuclear era and the stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union represents a significant part of the fabric of [our] childhood."

The film opens in the year 1957 when I was 20 years old. Back then, we had experienced the growing tension and threat of global annihilation, the witch hunting of Joe McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and the executions of the Rosenbergs convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. And there was no doubt in our minds that the Soviet people and their leaders were the incarnation of pure evil. We were constantly told by media and government that "they" wanted to destroy our country, our freedom, and especially our religion. It was up to us to be constantly vigilant because their spies were everywhere, stealing the secrets pertaining to the very things that kept us safe and alive. Anyone who was a godless Commie was our enemy, even if the person was our friend or neighbor.

And Nsharath009 points out that "The film generates an unmistakable nostalgia for a time when global conflict seemed more clear-cut and manageable than it does now." and that "with the passage of time, it's possible to tell stories of the time without furnishing them with overt propagandistic overlays, and for Westerners there is the added built-in appeal of the 'we won' factor and the perception that dealing with adversaries was so much simpler then than it is now."

In 1957, Soviet KGB agent Rudolf Abel, residing in Brooklyn, New York, was arrested and prosecuted for espionage. James B. Donovan, a lawyer, is chosen by his law partners to represent Abel at his trial. No one expects Donovan to seriously attempt to defend Abel and secure his acquital. But Donovan, much to the shock of people who are close to him as well as the American public,takes his assignment seriously, believing that anyone against whom criminal charges are brought, deserves the best defense that the Constitution guarantees. Therefore his defense of Abel is vigorous. It is eveident from the demenor of the judge and public opinion that the spy will be found guilty. The best that Donovan can do under these circumstances is to convince the judge to sentence Abel to long term imprisonment rather than to death as the Rosenbergs were.

Donovan indeed successfully has his client escape the electric chair by mentioning that one day America may be able to trade him for one of our own captured spies. Abel is convicted on three counts of conspiracy as a Soviet spy and sentenced to 45 years in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Georgia.

Donovan has carrried out his duty as an attorney but he now finds himself and his family in danger. He is deluged with hate mail and self appointed vigilantes fire shots into his home. As far as America is concerned, he has become a "fellow traveler".

Nsharath009 says that Spielberg and the screenwriters make Donovan come across as "a sort-of Atticus Finch of the north". This is interesting when you consider that Bridge Of Spies was almost made in 1965, and would have starred Gregory Peck as Donovan. Indeed, Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.

Because only a year and a half before, the Cuban Missile Crisis had been averted, and tensions between the Soviets and the United States were aggravated, MGM decided to drop the project.

The film movies on. It is now May, 1960 I was 23 years old and a month prior, I had been drafted into the military service of my country. Several months later I would find myself stationed in West Germany as part of the Army Signal Corps.

On May 1, 1960, American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, flying a U-2 spy plane, was shot down by a Russian surface-to-air missile over the Ukrainian city of Sverdlovsk. Powers bailed out and was captured.

Now James B. Donovan is recruited by the CIA in a mission to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Soviets. He is to travel to East Berlin and meet with the Soviet ambassador to arrange a trade, - Gary Powers for his former client, Rudolf Abel. Donovan is to travel as a private citizen with no acknowledgement that he is working for an American governmental agency. He is completely on his own. Should he be captured or killed, the U.S. will deny any involvement in the deal. The prisoner exchange is what Donovan had anticipated when he bargained for Abel's life back in 1957, and he accepts the mission with all the danger that it entails.

During the summer of 1961 I had already been serving in West Germany for over a year, and during that time, nothing dramatic had happened in the news. Then in August, the German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) began construction of the Berlin Wall which served to prevent the massive emigration and defection from East Germany and the communist Eastern Bloc. In my own battalion, there were many enlisted young men who had escaped from East Germany and Czechoslovakia. I suspected that it would only be a matter of time before the communist regime would do something to put a stop to fleeing refugees. As a result of the Wall's construction, tensions once again heated up between the US and the Soviets and we who were stationed in West Germany believed that actual fighting would break out between us. As a result, president Kennedy extened my stay in Germany and delayed my release from the army a few months. Thakfully fighting did not occur.

The building of the Wall complicated Donovan's mission. Antagonism between West and East, brought about by the division between the two Berlins, now led to Donovan having to deal with both Soviet officials and the East German military who, in the film, are portrayed as more hatefull to Americans than the Soviets.

Donovan now deals with the Soviets for the release of Powers and with the East Germans for the release of Frederic Pryor, a young American student trapped on the wrong side of the Wall as it was nearing completion, and held by the Germans as a spy. Eventually Donovan arranges for the spy swap to take place at the Glienicke Bridge leading from East to West Berlin.

Powers initially received a cold reception on his return to America, criticized for having failed to activate his aircraft's self-destruct charge to destroy the camera, photographic film, and related classified parts of his aircraft before his capture.

Donovan, on the other hand, was now seen as a hero and praised by the very people who had heaped scorn on him at the time of Abel's defense.

Spielberg has again given us a winner. Bridge Of Spies is a masterfully done piece. It brought back poignant memories of a time when I was coming of age during a time when America itself was evolving into greater and wiser country, able to successfully navigate the dangerous paths of that era. My own participation in the military so near to where many of the scenes were set gave the film a special personal meaning to me.

Kudos to Mark Rylance for his understated performance as KGB agent Rudolf Abel, and to Tom Hanks as attorney James B. Donovan.

The music playing in the backgroud is from the movie's sound track.

Did You Know?:
Partially filmed at Beale Air Force Base, California.
The 27th feature film directed by Steven Spielberg.
According to Steven Spielberg in a press release for the movie, Gregory Peck came after the story in 1965. Alec Guinness agreed to play Abel, Gregory Peck would play Donovan, and Stirling Silliphant would write the script. MGM declined to make the movie at the time. It was 1965, Cold War tensions were high with Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and MGM was reluctant to get into the politics of the story.
As seen in the film, Soviet agent Rudolph Abel received coded messages from his KGB handlers that were hidden inside a hollow U.S. nickel. The FBI first became aware of Abel's activities in 1953, when a Soviet agent mistakenly used one of the hollow nickels to buy a newspaper. The Brooklyn newsboy who had received the nickel thought it felt too light. He dropped the nickel on the sidewalk, and it popped open, revealing a piece of microfilm with a coded message inside. But FBI cryptologists were unable to crack the code until 1957, when a KGB defector, Reino Heyhanen, gave them the key to deciphering the code, and also gave up Rudolph Abel. The "Hollow Nickel Case" was also dramatized in The FBI Story (1959), starring James Stewart.
Spielberg's father actually went on a foreign exchange to Russia as an engineer during the cold war, right after Francis Gary Powers was shot down, when there was tremendous fear and hostility between the two nations. Spielberg's father recalled seeing Russian citizens line up to look at Powers' crashed gear and "see what America did." When they saw the American engineers, they pointed at them and said, "Look what your country is doing to us," demonstrating the fear and rage the nations felt towards each other.
Principal photography on "Bridge of Spies" began in September, 2014 and shot for 12 weeks on locations in New York, Germany and Poland, including many of the very places where the events in the story actually took place. European production kicked off in Berlin where the actual prisoner exchange of Abel and Powers took place. To film the crucial Berlin Wall sequences, production also traveled to Wroclaw, Poland which more accurately resembles the East Berlin of 1961 than Berlin itself.Rudolf Abel's seemingly incongruous accent was accurate. Abel was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Russian parents and spent some of his school age years in Scotland. He returned to Moscow in his late teens but never lost his accent when speaking English.
When Jim Donovan and Agent Huffman are in West Berlin, they walk past a German cinema where one of the movies playing is "Eins, Zwei, Drei." This is the German title of the American Cold War comedy One, Two, Three (1961), directed by Billy Wilder. In the film, James Cagney plays an American business executive working in West Berlin who, like Donovan, must cross over into East Berlin and negotiate with Soviet officials for the release of a political prisoner.
During the scene at dinner, James Donovan uses the line, "Every man deserves a defense". This line was also used in another Tom Hanks movie, The Green Mile.The rock band U2 took their name from the U-2 plane which is featured in this movie. The band's lead singer Bono's daughter Eve Hewson plays a role in the movie.
After the Donovan household is shot up, a disgruntled police officer confronts James Donovan and says, "I was in the third wave on Omaha beach." Saving Private Ryan (1998) begins with Tom Hanks's character, Captain Miller, landing on Omaha beach.
The final scene showing the prisoner exchange of Rudolph Abel and Francis Gary Powers was shot on the Glienicke Bridge (known as the "Bridge of Spies") in Berlin. This was the actual location of the 1962 prisoner exchange of Abel and Powers, and of many other prisoner exchanges between the Americans and Soviets during the Cold War.
At the end of the film, it is explained that Donovan was also influential in the Bay of Pigs negotiations, shortly after the events of the film. Donovan was asked to obtain freedom for detained Cubans and Americans imprisoned during the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961. Over the course of several trips to the island, Donovan gained the confidence of Cuban Power Fidel Castro. He eventually secured the release of more than 1,100 survivors of the invasion, as well as another 8,500 political prisoners.

The Paris premiere of the film was canceled, originally slated for 15th November, 2015, after several terrorists attacks hit Paris on 13th November and left more than 120 people dead.

The scene in East Berlin shows the "wall" going up in what appears to be winter time. However, the 'wall" went up overnight in August of 1961.
When the television set is turned off in this movie, picture disappears instantly. When TVs of the time were turned off, the picture shrank to a white dot which stayed on the screen for a few minutes.
The subway entrance at the beginning has a green globe. These colored globes did not exist until 1982. Green means open 24 hours. Red means not. Prior to 1982 they were always white. Interestingly the exact same mistake was made in a previous Hanks and Spielberg collaboration, "Catch Me If You Can".
During the courtroom scenes for the 1957 trial, the American flags flanking the judge were not introduced until 1960. At the time of the trial there were only 48 states. The flags have 50 stars.
At the beginning of the film, Rudolf Abel flees capture on a subway train. The ribbed siding of the car instantly marks it as an R-32 subway car, but all R-32 subway cars were manufactured in 1964, while this film is set in 1961 (the year the Berlin Wall was built).
In addition, the interior of the car has stickers with the design of all black and having a white stripe across the top. That style was originally conceived in the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual of 1970 and rolled out over the following few years. While the subway station was dressed for the era, the subway car itself is doubly anachronistic.
When the FBI chases after Abel, they turn up a hill in Brooklyn where one gets a small view of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge - a bridge that Abel also illustrates. But the bridge was not completed until 1964, 7 years after the chase scene would have occurred.
Donovan calls his wife from a West Berlin telephone booth and a) can pay for the call with a few coins and b) gets through immediately. Both virtually impossible in the 1960s when an overseas call often required hours to get the line and cost $10 for 3 minutes (US to Europe, probably more the other way round)
In several of the Brooklyn scenes cable TV distribution equipment and cables are visible.
When Donovan is riding the subway, outside you can see Directv antennas on peoples roofs.
The end titles say that the Soviets never acknowledged Abel as a spy. On the contrary, Abel's figure was frequently used as an example of a very successful spy, being able to stay undetected for 8 years in the United States and maintain his silence after being captured. Western journalists were invited to attend Abel's funeral. His gravestone is marked with the KGB crest. Abel's also frequently gave public speeches about the importance of intelligence work. Finally, Abel is portrayed on a series of Soviet stamps dedicated to "Soviet Intelligence officers" together with other well known agents such as Kim Philby and K.T. Molody.

James Donovan: Aren't you worried?
Rudolf Abel: Would it help?
Rudolf Abel: Standing there like that you reminded me of the man that used to come to our house when I was young. My father used to say: "watch this man", so I did, every time he came. And never once he do anything remarkable.
James Donovan: And I remind you of him?
Rudolf Abel: This one time, I was at the age of your son, our house is overrun by partisan boarder guards. Dozen of them. My father was beaten, my mother was beaten, and this man, my father's friend, he was beaten. And I watched this man. Every time they hit him, he stood back up again. Soldier hit him harder, still he got back to his feet. I think because of this they stopped the beating and let him live... "Stoikiy muzhik". Which sort of means like a "standing man"... Standing man...
James Donovan: [forced to leave dining room before eating his meal] Enjoy your big American breakfast.
James Donovan: We have to have the conversations our governments can't.

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Cast overview, first billed only:
Mark Rylance ... Rudolf Abel
Domenick Lombardozzi ... Agent Blasco
Victor Verhaeghe ... Agent Gamber
Mark Fichera ... FBI Agent #1
Brian Hutchison ... FBI Agent #2
Tom Hanks ... James B. Donovan
Joshua Harto ... Bates
Henny Russell ... Receptionist
Rebekah Brockman ... Alison - Donovan's Secretary
Alan Alda ... Thomas Watters Jr.
John Rue ... Lynn Goodnough
Billy Magnussen ... Doug Forrester
Amy Ryan ... Mary Donovan
Jillian Lebling ... Peggy Donovan
Noah Schnapp ... Roger Donovan

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